Toilet training too early?

Q. According to my grandmother's diary, my mother was completely toilet trained by age 18 months, but my grandmother didn't explain her method. My mother is the happiest, most well-adjusted person I know, so early training obviously didn't harm her in any way. Do you have any idea how my grandmother accomplished this?
A. When it came to toilet training in your grandmother's day, 18 months was not considered "early." As recently as the 1950s, according to a Harvard University survey, nine of 10 American children were toilet trained by 24 months. Even today, children in most third-world countries are completely trained by 24 months. As one might expect, the average age in industrialized countries is higher, with children in the USA wearing diapers the longest.
Women in your grandmother's day approached toilet training very matter-of-factly, much the same way they taught their children to eat with spoons. When you think about it, the two tasks are fairly similar. They are both self-help skills; both require patience, guidance, and encouragement; and both necessitate that the parent deal with a certain amount of mess in the beginning. Because "experts" do not babble on about "readiness signs" for spoon-training or predict dire psychological consequences if a child is not allowed to decide for himself when to use a spoon, parents approach this teaching casually and straightforwardly, much the same way parents approached toilet training in your grandma's day. As a consequence, it is rare indeed to find a 2-year-old refusing to use a spoon.
I recently received a letter from a woman who reported that she started toilet training with each of her four children around 12 months and that in every case, training was successfully culminated by 18 months. She began by freely admitting that she had to first train herself to be cognizant of signals from her child that elimination was imminent.
It all began one morning when she discovered her 7-month-old had a clean diaper. She sat him on the potty, gave him a piece of toast, and he had a bowel movement.
"I learned," she writes, "his rhythms; he learned my vocabulary and earned our praises. He quickly grew to prefer dry, clean pants, and began letting me know when he had to go."
She and her husband praised, let him watch them using the toilet, and helped him when he signaled he needed help. By age 18 months, he was standing to urinate! She followed the same plan with her other three children. Her experiences led her to conclude that toilet training is primarily a matter of communication, not control. She's convinced that by starting training early, one increases the likelihood that the child will become quickly intolerant of his or her own messy diapers and, consequently, more cooperative.
She closes by writing, "Certainly not all children will be as cooperative as mine were, but I'll bet that many, if not most, would be if someone taught them the language, knew their routines, and cared enough to give them sufficient attention and praise."
That sounds like an excellent prescription for a lot of parenting matters.
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 E. 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site:

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