We Used This Chinese Method to Potty Train Our Son In a Week

Don't get me wrong, it was weird and messy ⏤ but it worked.

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When my son was 2-years-old, we lived in China and enrolled him in a local daycare. He was still in diapers ⏤ because, well, he was 2-years-old and that’s how toddlers are supposed to be ⏤ but to the women at the daycare, we were barbarians. In her mind, even the kids who were too young to talk could tug on a woman’s dress to let her know they had to go potty. And here we were, strolling in with some poor kid who hadn’t been potty trained and was still waddling around in his own soiled pants. “No good,” the manager told us. “We will fix this.” And she did. In one week.

For two years, we struggled to potty train our son, and we got nowhere. But a Chinese daycare managed to have him peeing in a toilet in just one week. They used “elimination communication.” You might have read about it before in some article that suggested you try it at home. Admittedly, the articles are right ⏤ it really does work ⏤ but they also offer an unsanitized version of how it’s done, and usually leave out some big details.

Parents in China don’t just do a few things differently ⏤ they live in an entirely different culture. And if you really want to potty train your kid the Chinese way, you’re going to have to endure a few stares along the way. Here’s what it entails:

1. Wearing Crotchless Pants

Babies are one of the first things you notice when you visit China. In lieu of diapers, most children move around in slitted pants: pants with big, gaping holes right in the one place you’d expect any self-respecting article of clothing to cover up. That’s the real secret to why these kids don’t wet their pants ⏤ they have crotch holes. It would be practically impossible to soil them.

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For Westerners, it’s a pretty jarring sight to see a bunch of kids living the free and breezy life. But as far as our Chinese daycare was concerned, it wasn’t anywhere near as disgusting as wearing diapers. The way they see it, the worst case scenario is that a kid wearing crotchless pants will leave a mess somewhere. If he’s outside, he might pee on the grass; if he’s indoors, you might need to grab a mop. But if a kid in diapers soils himself, the parents don’t even realize it’s happened a lot of time. The kid’s stuck wallowing in his own filth and possibly getting a rash until mom and dad catch a whiff and wipe him down.

2. Watching For Signs Of Incoming Pee

Part of the secret to potty training with “elimination communication” is watching for those little hints that your child has to use the bathroom. When the child’s too young to say anything, you have to be the one looking out for signs and rushing them to the potty before it’s too late. And that works. Kind of. I mean, that’s certainly what we did. We looked for facial expressions and twitches and made our best guess as to whether or not he had to pee. And we right ⏤ like, 40 percent of the time.

But what people don’t mention is that this is a hell of a lot simpler when your kid’s wearing crotchless pants. Because as useful as little facial twitches can be, it’s a whole lot easier to know an accident is coming when you can see the water hose filling up. That’s why we didn’t get our child trained until he was two ⏤ because we were too shy to cut holes in his pants. But if you’re really trying to potty train your kid like a Chinese person, those crotchless pants are a big part of the process.

3. Hanging Out On The Potty

In China, there’s no cooler place to hang out with your kids than on a miniature plastic potty. It’s basically where you end up spending half of your day. As soon as a baby’s big enough to hold up his own head, they’ll plop him on the toilet every chance they get. Usually, they straddle them over the potty with their hands under their thighs. Then, when it’s time to pee, they whistle.

The point is to get the baby used to the idea that this is where they’re supposed to go to the bathroom. The whistle, meanwhile, creates a Pavlovian reaction designed to make them pee on command. It works surprisingly well. But the one thing you’ve got to prepare for is spending a lot more time hanging out on the potty. Unfortunately, it’s tough to do when you have a job. But it’s a whole lot easier if, like most Chinese couples, your grandparents live in the house.

4. Peeing In Trash Cans

In the West, we’re convinced that kids aren’t ready developmentally for potty training until they’re 2-years-old. And, honestly, we’re kind of right. One-year-olds really can’t make it to the potty in time. It’s just that, in China, nobody cares where the kid pees. In fact, kids in China pee everywhere. It was one of the first things I saw after my plane touched down in China: a father holding his child over his head like Simba before the Pride as a steady stream of urine flowed from the kid and into a trash can. They’ll pee in trash cans, they’ll pee on trees, and they’ll even just whip it out and pee on the sidewalk, right where everyone’s walking. And that works. There’s no question about it ⏤ you really can get a baby to stop peeing himself by the time he’s one. You just have to be ready to do some pretty weird stuff.

5. Deciding How Far You’re Willing To Go

I’ll be honest, we didn’t go all the way. We hung out on the potty, we let our boy pee on trees, and we even ran a one-week intensive “no pants allowed” potty training, similar to the American three-day weekend version. Because of all that, we could call our boy potty trained at two. But hadn’t been willing go all the way. We weren’t about to have our child running around outside with a hole in his pants or peeing on sidewalks as he strolled through town. Maybe if we had, we would have had him potty-trained a year earlier before arriving in China ⏤ but we were only willing to go so far.
That’s the truth about elimination communication. It works, but there’s more to it than just technique. It takes an entire culture to make it work. And if you’re going to try in the West, you’ve got to decide just how much staring you’re willing to endure.

Mark Oliver is writer, a teacher, and a father. You can read more of his writing at mark-oliver.com.