Starting Out

By Marjorie Ingall

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.

Today we will talk about poop. I was hoping to somehow bring poop into a discussion of this week’s Torah portion, to give the poop gravitas, but Parshat Pinchas turns out to be about immoral Israelites sexually consorting with Moabites and getting righteously killed in flagrante delicto. So, uh, not so much. (I could save this parsha for when Josie starts dating, though.)

Still, poop is on my brain because we are just beginning to consider toilet training Maxine. At almost 21 months, she’s very aware of her bowel-related activities. She calls to me as soon as she wakes up: “Mama! Poop! Diaper! Change you!” (She’s better with body awareness than with pronouns.) Today at breakfast she was shifting uncomfortably in her highchair, so I asked, “Are you okay?” She beamed and said: “Fart! Just a fart!” She pronounces it “fahht,” which makes her sound very continental.

Given her newfound dislike of having a dirty diaper, her expanding ability to talk about her body functions and her perpetual desire to do everything Josie does, I thought the time might be nigh for potty training. Then something happened that led me to think we should wait.

Our baby sitter, Rita, rarely interrupts me while I’m writing. But the other day, I heard her shriek with laughter outside my door, then call for me to come out. I did… and there was Maxine, naked, clinging to Rita like lichen on a rock, babbling “Fwog! Scared! Fwog! Scared!” Apparently Rita had just taken off Maxine’s diaper and begun to fill the tub for her bath when Max had called to her, panicked, from the hallway. I followed her pointing little finger. There, on the floor, was a little green pile of poop. (She’d had peas and edamame for dinner.) The poop had — and there is really no delicate way to say this, but you’re still with me four-and-a-half paragraphs into a column about bowel movements, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so concerned about your delicate sensibilities — a little soft-serve-like flourish on top. The effect was indeed a bit froggy.

I laughed and cleaned it up, assuring Max that it was only poop, not a frog, nothing to be scared of. That night, she chanted to Jonathan her toddler version of a Homeric epic, to be retold dramatically for eons: “Fwog! Scared! Poop! Mommy clean it! Okay!” It occurred to me that anyone who is incapable of recognizing a substance that has come out of her own body only moments earlier may not, in fact, have sufficient cluefulness for potty training.

So I think we’ll wait awhile longer. We didn’t get serious about training Josie until she was about 31 months, and it was pretty effortless. Like her mother, Josie is highly motivated by both fashion and chocolate. So between the siren call of M&M’s and the promise of big-girl panties — one set featuring the aptly named Winnie the Poo(h), one set featuring Minnie Mouse and one set featuring Dora the Explorer, the cartoon character whose chirpy voice makes me want to self-immolate — Josie ditched the dipes almost immediately. (She then went through a brief phase of naming her poops, like sculptures. I recall “The Crab,” “The Ice Cream and the Tiny Babies” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Remind me to hide this particular column from both of my children when they learn to read, won’t you?)

Previous generations toilet trained their kids earlier than we do today. When Jane Brody, a writer of a certain age, writes in The New York Times about toilet training, her impatience with today’s overly permissive parents seeps through the column like poop through the leg-hole of an improperly fastened Huggies. And there are young parents today who want to get their kids out of diapers by age 1. They tout a method called “elimination communication,” in which you pay close attention to a baby’s facial expressions and body language and put him on a potty as soon as you see an indication that he’s ready to let loose. This method does not work for people with jobs and lives. Neither, in my opinion, does the perennial classic “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day,” by Nathan Azrin and Richard M. Foxx, originally published in 1974. (The highlights: Stuff the kid full of sugary drinks, stay in one room all day with a potty and few distractions, check her pants frequently, and reward her constantly for dry pants rather than for potty use.) I tried this method for 20 minutes. Josie became so annoyed at my nudging that she refused all treats. and I became so bored at my own patter, I wanted to pee on the floor just to spite myself.

Toilet-related matters simply aren’t among the many, many things I’m neurotic about. I kept Josie in pull-ups at night until she was nearly 4. (I didn’t want her to feel pressured, and perhaps regress, after Max’s birth. And guess what? When she did give up pull-ups, there was no drama whatsoever.) These days, the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t consider nighttime bedwetting a problem until a child is 7. Still, I understand why so many parents get so distressed about potty training. Some preschools won’t let kids attend if they’re not trained. Hypercompetitive parents of poop prodigies are annoyingly boastful (dude, bowel movements are not runes predicting Ivy League admissions), and parents of potty lollygaggers worry that they’re failures, that their kids are developmentally delayed or spiteful. Parenting magazines run endless chirpy articles making toilet-training sound so easy, even a child could do it. For some perfectly smart kids, it just isn’t easy. Who the heck knows why?

And there are as many children’s books about using the potty as there are squares in a Charmin Ultra MegaRoll. Sadly, most have the approximate literary value of a Charmin Ultra MegaRoll. (Oh, and have you tried the Ultra MegaRoll at Japonica? It’s fabulous.) We have “The Potty Book for Girls” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Dorothy Stott (Barron’s Educational Series, 2000). It’s written in repetitive, perky doggerel and illustrated with cloying, wiggly lined, mostly pink illustrations. (Josie loved it, so who’m I to be all “Tonstant Weader fwowed up” about it?) It is not to be confused with “My Potty Book for Girls” (DK Children, 2001), which features very little text (there’s no credited author) along with colorful photos of toddlers of many races using potties of many colors. The book is boring, but the orange and lime-green potties without ungapatchka design elements or labels are fabulous. There’s also the innocuous “The Princess and the Potty” by Wendy Cheyette Lewison, illustrated by Rick Brown, originally published in 1991 (Greenwillow). Like Josie, the princess announces, “This potty doesn’t please me”… until she finds an incentive: “the prettiest pair of pantalettes in the land.” Probably the most charming potty book is “Time To Pee” by Mo Willems (originally published by Hyperion, 2003), the Brooklynite children’s book rock star who wrote “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and “Knuffle Bunny,” among other newfound classics. It has sophisticated retro design, cartoon-y cheerleading mice and lots of humor. Will it lead to potty-peeing? I have no clue.

The “War and Peace” of potty-training literature is “Once Upon a Potty” by Alona Frankel. It was originally published (in Hebrew) in 1975 and went on to become a best seller in many countries. It spawned a cottage industry of branded potties (with “retro European elegance,” according to the “Once Upon a Potty” Web site), anatomically correct dolls, animated videos and DVDs with potty-training songs. Somehow we got the boy version (it comes in boy and girl editions), which probably will mess up my daughters for life, but oh, well. I love the very ’70s design: The characters have giant Jewfros, and the mother wears a long Marimekko-esque flowered muumuu. I cannot make myself read the icky words “pee pee,” “poo poo” and “wee wee” aloud, so I have to edit as I read, and I find the mother’s heroic, long-suffering role in the narrative a little bit weird. (But hey, very Jewish.) And I know I’d rather read it than “Potty Time With Elmo” (Publications International), published earlier this year. The child pushes a button, and instead of asking, “Who wants to try to go potty?” Elmo asks, “Who wants to die?” Whoops. Turned out to be a mistakenly compressed digital audio file. Hey, poop happens.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.



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