Key Take aways:
- We know that positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to encourage people to continue doing a specific behavior.
- Positive reinforcement can include everything from praise to small treats like chocolate chips to bigger treats like ice cream out or a new toy.
- Some experts don’t like the idea of rewarding kids for expected behaviors like pooping on the potty because the reward is not going in their diaper. But, if you’ve only ever known pooping in your diaper, it's hard to know why you would ever switch without some type of positive response or reward.
- There are creative ways to encourage children to use the potty, including a potty jar or spending a few minutes with them playing their favorite game.
article summary: Positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to encourage your child to continue to use the potty. Remember, they have been using a diaper their whole life, so it feels comfortable and secure. For them, they have no reason to get rid of the diaper. To get your child interested in potty training, some parents lean on rewards. You can tap into little treat rewards like M&Ms or chocolate chips, or you can get a little more creative with activity jars, playing with a special toy after going, or just giving them a solid high five and a big smile.
Of course, there are some experts and parents who aren't big subscribers to the whole rewards system. And we also can see their point. Normal behavior should not need a reward and there is also a risk that your child will demand more and more M&Ms.
Whatever route you choose, know that all experts will agree that positive reinforcement is a beneficial tool in potty training. Whether that looks like giving your kid a fist bump, letting them put a sticker on a chart, or going to the zoo every time they pee - that is up to you to decide what will be best for your child in the short- and long-term.
Arguments for Using Rewards
We have a friend who happens to be a super smart lady. We were chatting with her about potty training and rewards, and she said, "why wouldn't you use rewards? Everything we do in life is for a reward." WHAT?!
Seriously, why on earth would we get up early in the morning to go to work if it weren't for a paycheck? Or if we don't need money but still work, we obviously do it for some other reward like personal fulfillment, helping someone else, being a part of something bigger, etc.
Okay, now what about our activities of daily living like brushing our teeth. Why do we do that? Well, so that we have a healthy mouth and fresh breath. Same with using the toilet. We use the toilet to keep our pants unsoiled, to avoid skin breakdown and infections, to relieve our bladders and bowels, and to not avoid embarrassment in public. Your child will not feel any of these things are a reward when they are starting to use the potty. After all, they have used a diaper to fulfill all of these needs throughout their life, so what do they have to gain?
Giving your child a small reward as an incentive to go to the potty is fun for them and quite frankly, pretty helpful. We do have a few ground rules that you may want to keep in mind with rewards:
- Start small. Begin giving them something quite small that is exciting but can be built upon if necessary. For example, if they are just starting to potty train and sit on the potty for a bit and nothing comes out, offer them something small like one chocolate chip for their efforts. If they successfully pee next time, you can give them 2 chocolate chips. As they get more independent with sitting on the potty you can phase out a chocolate chip for trying.
- Make sure your rewards system is developmentally appropriate for them. Depending on your child’s age, they may not be able to understand that staying dry for a full week will mean they can pick a toy out on Sunday.
- Rewards don’t always have to be tangible items. Some children are perfectly happy knowing they get to flush the toilet after going. Others may be thrilled with a big hug or a few minutes of your undivided attention playing their favorite game.
Creative Reward Ideas
Parents often fall back on candy to motivate their children (no shame here - many of us did it, too, and it worked!). But, there are plenty of other fun ways to motivate your child without making your pediatric dentist cringe. Give these ideas a thought before reaching for the candy jar after your child's 6 AM pee.
- Make a Potty Jar - Let your kid decorate a special jar or box where you put little notes that contain a fun activity on each one. Try to make them quick little activities, like running outside and making a chalk picture together on the driveway, playing with their Lego set or dollhouse together, or wrestling together on the floor. Even a big jumping hug will suffice. You can also do bigger activities like finger painting or even a trip to the zoo.
- Praise Them- This may seem like a buzzkill, but honestly, looking your child into their eyes, giving them your attention and excitement, and a big high five can make them feel really good about themselves.
- Decorate their potty - Let them add a sticker to their potty chair each time they successfully pee or poo. Just make sure they stay away from the areas you need to be able to clean easily.
- Potty books - Keep a few special potty books aside that your child can enjoy when they are using the potty.
- Potty dolls - There are special dolls you can buy that wet themselves after they drink a bottle. Letting your child play with one of these dolls can help them begin to piece together how peeing works.
- Play with food coloring - After your child goes pee or poop, let them add a few drops of food coloring in the bowl. They will enjoy seeing the different colors and flushing them.
Sticker charts are a pretty common reward parents use as well. From our experience, we have found they aren’t as useful as we’d like, but if your child is a big fan of stickers, have at it!
Arguments Against Using Rewards in Potty Training
There are some experts who are not big fans of tangible rewards, and we see their points as well. Here are some of the arguments against using rewards with potty training:
- Normal human behaviors should not need rewards. Just like when your child was learning to walk, you probably didn’t give them a piece of candy each time they took a step. Same with learning to sleep through the night or learning to feed themselves. Indeed, when we teach children to expect a reward after they do every little thing, it can lead to a cascade of false expectations and disappointment as they grow older.
- How far will you go? Many parents opt for M&Ms with potty training (or something similar that is small and easy to dish out). But, what will you do when 1 or 2 M&Ms don’t sway your child enough to keep using the potty? What if they now want 4? Or, if they stop going altogether, do you switch to a different treat entirely?
- What about giving candy first thing in the morning? Imagine that glorious morning when your child wakes up dry for the first time! Are you going to give them their candy reward or do you have a backup plan?
- What happens when they try on the potty but can’t go? Defining what deserves a reward can be challenging, and going to the potty when you have the urge, even if it is unsuccessful, is still commendable. So, what will you do if your child tries to poop but nothing comes out? Do you give a reward? What if they start to catch on and are spending every minute on the potty for another treat? Some children who are really clever may also pee a little bit, get their treat, and then pee again to get another treat. Tricksters.
- When do you stop rewarding? This is one of the biggest challenges for most parents who reward their children: at one point do you say, “Okay, you no longer need a reward because you are fully trained.” How will your child feel about that and how will you respond if they are upset and regress?
Using Positive Reinforcement
Your decision to use rewards is entirely your choice. However, one thing everyone can agree on is using positive reinforcement to congratulate your child and help them feel good about themselves. Indeed, unlike external rewards which are short-lived, the ability to feel confident proud of yourself is an invaluable gift to bestow upon your child. You can make your child feel good about themselves by saying things like:
- “Wow, Alex! That must have felt great to make it to the potty in time!”
- “You must be proud of yourself that you have clean, dry panties, Lucy!”
- “I bet your stomach feels much better after going poop in the potty, James.”
- “I saw how well you cleaned yourself after you went potty. Great job, Mia!”
You can even comment on how thoroughly they washed their hands or hung up their towel after drying off. Verbally acknowledging their efforts in various stages of the potty process can help them become more confident in their overall skills in potty going. Just make sure to not overdo the acknowledgment by screaming, jumping up and down, etc. Keep the focus on them and how they feel about their accomplishment. According to Jamie Glowaski, a potty expert who isn’t huge on rewards, even a fist bump or a few words of congratulations will suffice.
Give them choice, but not control.
Another way to motivate your child without a tangible reward is to give them the power of choice. When it is time to use the potty you can say, “do you want to take your teddy or your doll with you to the potty?” Or you might say, “would you like to go to the potty by yourself or have me sit with you?” Here, your child has a choice, but you are in control of the end result (going to the potty). Being able to make a decision about what they want to do is also empowering for them.