The holy work of potty training

The holy work of potty training a special needs kid

Over a decade ago, I edited the manuscript of a new book from John Rosemond, a prominent psychologist who writes primarily about family and parenting. I had an 18 month old child at the time, and in the book he made a statement that struck me at that stage in my life: He suggested that any parent who has not potty trained their child before the age of two is basically lazy.

Furthermore, he said without a doubt: “everyone benefits from pre-two training.”


I set down my pen, walked downstairs, and decided that was the day we would begin training our child. My husband wasn’t so sure, but guilt is a strong motivator.

But in the two seconds I had turned away to do something, my kid walked into the attached garage, opened the car door, climbed inside, and pooped.

I decided maybe my husband was right. But the shame from the author’s statements stayed with me. They were so definitive, so inclusive. Everyone. All. 

And the one that really, really got me: lazy.

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More than a decade later, I still remember this sentence from one of hundreds of books I’ve edited. It still nags. And as we’re currently gathering a team of therapists to be at our house around the clock for four days to help us train our almost six-year-old daughter who has autism, there’s still a part of me that thinks I should have been able to figure this out on my own.

It’s just potty training. “It’s not rocket science,” as Rosemond said.

But for some kids, it is rocket science.

So many factors can complicate how a child learns this “basic” life skill: early childhood trauma, adoption trauma, physical differences, one-of-a-kind brains that don’t process information the same way, sensory processing deficiencies, and so much more.

Just a couple months ago, Kristen Bell was swiftly mom-shamed on Twitter when she revealed that her 5-year-old still wore PullUps at night. Good grief. I have no idea what her child’s story is, but I know this: not all kids—and not all parents—are the same. Can we (gasp) celebrate that as a good thing?

Could we maybe, just maybe, expand our idea of inclusion? Recognize that there’s no one hard-and-fast rule for parenting?

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No parent needs to feel shame over not having mastering toilet training by two. For those of us in the special needs parenting circle, it seems almost an impossibility. We all have enough on our plates; shame doesn’t need to be part of what we’re serving up.

For me, I’m praying, preparing, and hoping that I’ll have a six-year-old who’s potty trained this year. To me, that seems like a massive accomplishment, and if we succeed then you can expect me to celebrate it.

But for those moms who are still working on it, or those whose kids will never use the toilet on their own, hear this: you are doing good, hard, dignified work. Your stooped back, the heavy lifting, the holding of your breath, the heavy sigh of exhaustion: it is all seen. It is holy work.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

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