Toilet training has one obvious goal: Get the kid using the bathroom and the parents out of the messy picture. Parents and kids make a big deal out of it, and that makes sense. It is a pretty big milestone for toddlers. It isn’t, however, the end of potty training. There is a second, oft-overlooked chapter. Every kid has to learn to wipe his or her own ass. This will remain true until Americans finally accept the still nascent bidet revolution.
Most kids in America toilet train between two and three-and-a-half years of age, which is actually pretty late by international standards. None of those kids have the motor skills necessary to wipe their bottoms. They can’t see back there to know if they’ve done it right, and have no internal sensation to tell them when they are done. And no matter how much they want to be big kids and entirely independent, they simply may not develop the dexterity they need for some months.
How to Teach a Kid to Wipe
- Set Realistic Expectations – certain motions, no matter how important, can’t be done well without a certain level of motor skills. Not every kid will have those motor skills yet, and that’s okay.
- Be an Active Coach in the Bathroom – wiping is less intuitive than using the potty, and kids need explicit instructions, practice, and review from their parents.
- Safety Wipes Keep the Skidmarks at Bay – once a kid has gone through the routine, parents can check to make sure things are clean and possibly administer a wipe themselves, if needed.
- Stay Calm – nothing derails skill building like the pressure of an impatient parent.
- Skid Marks Aren’t the End of the World – while a child is still learning a skill, sometimes their underwear isn’t going to be the cleanest. It isn’t personal.
“A three-year-old, a four-year-old – sure you can have them do it, but it’s not going to be done well,” says explains Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a licensed psychologist, board-certified analyst, and director of a child psychology unit at Nova Southeastern University. “You have to really think about what is developmentally appropriate for the age of your child. Though you may want to be done wiping your child’s butt, the truth is they may not be ready for it, and that’s okay.”
So, for a few months (or more, depending on the kid) parents may be on the hook for wiping duties. No problem. That’s what they invented shittens for. Parents can coach their kids, check if they are clean and give them feedback on their technique. Technique varies from family to family, but remember that little kids have no point of reference. They don’t know how many toilet paper squares to use if they go in the toilet or the garbage, or what can be flushed down the toilet. (Not wet wipes, even if they say “flushable.”)
Once they have an idea on technique, parents should still stick around to offer a safety wipe, or a wipe down by an adult after the kid tries it, because they probably aren’t going to be particularly good at it. This can be frustrating for parents who just want the process to be complete; there’s a temptation to compare kids to their peers, siblings, or relatives, and that isn’t fair. In fact, stressing about potty training can really interfere with the process.
In the midst of all this wiping, parents should realize there is an extremely important bathroom skill that most kids can master by age three: washing hands. This skill takes on even more importance when the wiper isn’t up to snuff.
“Make sure your kids know how to wash their hands really well. That’s going to be a much more important skill because going to the bathroom is dirty,” says Lesack. “We want it to be a sanitized kind of experience, but it just isn’t, especially for kids who don’t have very good motor skills. Imagine: if a child can’t hold a pencil really well, are they going to be able to get that efficient smooth wiping motion? Probably not.”
Many kids will achieve bathroom independence in preschool; by kindergarten, school districts will expect kids to be able to toilet completely by themselves. It’s still probably not going to be great, but it’s okay if it’s good enough.
“By kindergarten, they should be able to do it, and if they’re 80% clean, that’s pretty clean,” explains Lesack. “Expecting a 100% is probably not a realistic expectation for most kids, and the most important thing is their hand washing afterward.”