How to Make Potty Training Suck Less

The road to that first doody in a toilet is paved with a lot of frantic parental behaviors.

by Mark Putney
A toddler sitting on a potty

“Dad!” Will yelled, a pitch sharper than normal, “I have to poop!”

“Okay, hold on buddy,” I hollered, urgency sending my voice an octave higher.

Please, please, please don’t crap in the bathtub, I muttered, wrestling Bennett, my one-year-old son, into his pajamas in the adjacent room. Bolting through the door, I reassured Will but a grimace spread across his face. His eyebrows furrowed and he sounded like Paul Revere for a moment: “Quick, Dad! The poop is coming!” I snatched him from the tub and ferried him to the toilet, water puddling on the floor.

If successful, this would be the first occasion Will deposited fecal matter in a standard, flushable toilet — a milestone I wondered if I would ever witness. It had been a long year of potty training. Although my wife and I had felt some progress in the past few weeks, teaching our firstborn son how to poop in the toilet had proved to be one of our steepest parenting hurdles to date.

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

For the past twelve months, Emily and I scoured the Internet, sought advice from family and friends, and checked out books from the public library for the right blend of advice and encouragement. It felt like most people had proficient crappers and nary a complication. It will happen, they said, don’t worry. Our family members, most of whom had already completed their potty training trials with children, didn’t seem concerned or couldn’t remember what they did. Their indifference did not assuage my mixture of frustration and fear.

When I was most flummoxed, I visualized my son as a fifth-grade student, raising his hand to ask for a diaper change at school. Nightmares ensued. A sense of urgency pressed down upon my psyche until we checked out Oh Crap! Potty Training from the library. We thought the subtitle proved true: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right.

Em read the book and explained the general approach to me: Will would be a nudist for a week during the summer—spending his days naked to facilitate peeing and pooping. He would shed his pants and undergarments until he began to realize when he had an urge to eliminate bodily waste. And it worked! Amazingly, this approach produced satisfactory results. Will demonstrated pooping and peeing proficiency in his tiny toilet, a miniature replica of the real porcelain throne, shortly after turning three. We thought we had done it! I extended congratulations to Em for her masterful plan—that wasn’t so hard—and I praised my son. But as quickly as our scheme worked, it failed.

It was a Thursday last summer, shortly after the fleeting moment of potty training bliss. I finished reading Will his second book before nap time—probably Everyone Poops, or Elmo Goes to the Potty, or my personal favorite, What is Poop? (Did you know that rhinos fling their poop with a whirling tail, wombats deposit squares, beetles carry poo for future snacking, or that bats spread seeds with their excrement?). Will snuggled next to me on his bed. “Can I have a song?” he asked; I obliged. By request, I sung an off-tune story about a dog, a lego, and a tractor. I gave him a kiss, a hug, and pulled up his covers.

Before I even made it down to the landing near the top of the stairs, I heard my toddler pushing, grunting, and groaning. Will opted to poop in his diaper and then sleep with this fecal companion for a couple hours during nap time, a throwback to infancy, and apparently a wonderful comfort. One friend described this as a form of security—a way for him to process the day. Our parental efforts be damned; he was determined to poop in his pants.

Through our potty training research, I learned pooping, though not a high brow activity, is actually somewhat complicated. In U.S. News and World Report, Dr. Natasha Burgert offers advice for parents to get a toddler pooping on the potty. She explains that there are good reasons a kid won’t crap: the poop, the position, and the process. All three of these can cause kids to clench. Alex Brasdel’s article in The Guardian, “Bowel Movement: The Push to Change the Way You Poo,” describes the complexity eloquently: “The passage of a humble turd demands the orchestration of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system, muscles skeletal and smooth, three anal reflexes, two sphincters and a weight of cultural knowledge about where and when it’s appropriate to go.”

After the early successes in the summer, Will had thwarted our best efforts by the time we all headed back to school. In the chaos of returning to work and the start of pre-school, we hit pause on our efforts. We changed poopy diapers after nap time; we urged him to use the potty; we promised ice cream, toys, and a 401(k). In response, Will crapped in his pants.

That is, until October 18 when I received a text on my commute home from work: “Will pooped in the potty!” I must have hit the gas and accelerated through the turns, yearning to see the product of his labors. As soon as I burst through the door and set down my keys, I yelled for Will: “Hey, buddy! I heard some big news!” Running and jumping through the house, I waved my arms like a fool.

“Daddy? Is that you?” he said. Slowly, a grin tugged at his mouth and he tossed aside his building blocks to join me in the dance —a series of whirling, twirling movements that have since been dubbed, “The Poop Dance.”

We continued this duet for longer than seemed possible. Out of breath, we made our way upstairs to his bedroom to see his mini potty — an exact replica of an adult toilet equipped with an audible flushing noise that sits about a foot off the ground. On our way, my wife whispered in my ear: “I do not know how that thing came out of his body.”

Em pointed toward the mini toilet and uttered the fateful words: “Go look at it.” With a mixture of anxiety and amusement, I crossed the threshold into his bedroom, slowly opening the toilet’s lid and gazed in awe. A poop the size of a large grapefruit consumed the entire bowl. I gasped and laughed, and then gazed in silent reverence. Carrying the foreign object downstairs, holding my breath and astonishment, I dumped it into the standard issue toilet. The poop stubbornly remained perched on the edge of the water, resembling a beached whale. I stifled a laugh, said something about the divine.

Finally, I chose a plastic speed boat, though with hindsight, a tugboat may have been better equipped for the job. Using the pointy bow to nudge the excrement into the water, I shoved the mass into the toilet. It partially submerged itself in the waters; my hopes were buoyed. With a prayer, I pushed the lever to release the flood waters, and my fears were realized. The toilet filled with water, and filled with water, and filled with water. The beast had lodged itself in the pipes.

Two months after this incident, I heard Will shout from the bathroom. Now, he sat on the toilet, water dripping off his toes, with a determined look about him. “You can do this!” I said. His face grew redder by the grunt and he grasped the toilet seat. His feet dangled; he closed his eyes. I noticed something leaving my son’s body, and I shouted a little louder. “You got this, Will!”

“I love you, Dad!” he yelled through straining and groaning.

I smiled, “I love you, too, bud.”

The grunting, moaning, and groaning continued and soon I heard a splash. Will’s face evened out, he looked down at the water, and there it was: a magnificent turd.

“You did it, Will!” I yelled, giving him a hug.

As the water filled the bowl, he turned to me with a toothy grin, and said, “Dad, can I get my two jelly beans?” The toddler sized poop disappeared down the pipes, exactly as the adventure is depicted in the children’s book, What is Poop? Will picked out his prizes for pooing, and we danced in the living room, our life, seemingly revolving around celebrating bowel movements. Laughing and out of breath, we collapsed on the floor. “I’m proud of you buddy,” I said, “you are working hard.” He pushed a fire truck around and made siren sounds.

“Thanks, Dad,” he said. “I can poop in the potty.” I relished the triumphant victory, and that’s when I turned to Bennett, our youngest son, still comfortably clad in diapers. Still a year away from potty training. His face was red, and he was grunting near the couch. Oh crap! I thought—my sense of accomplishment, disappearing with each groan.

Mark Putney is a writer and teacher. His writing has appeared in Oregon Humanities, Sport- Literate, the Oregon English Journal and the Ruminate blog. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. He was born in New York, grew up in Alaska, and now lives in Oregon with his wife and sons.