Are Rewards the Magic Trick to Potty Training?

Inside: Here are 5 things to consider before trying rewards in potty training your toddler.

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Once on a phone consultation call with a mom, sharing potty training issues she was having with her son, I heard her voice suddenly trail off to a whisper..

I did the thing I know the book says not to do.
I gave him a gummy candy for peeing in the potty.

Her voice sounded embarrassed. Like a confessional where you’re waiting to hear an I told you so in the next breath.

She added how it worked a couple times, and then it didn’t.

And it did nothing to help the poops.

Let’s pause for a second, because this is important.

There’s no shame in trying to bribe your child to go pee in the potty. That wasn’t Jamie’s intention in sharing her perspective on rewards in Oh Crap Potty Training, and it’s not my view as a potty training consultant, either.

Rewards can work for some kids. Plain and simple. And if it works for you, that is AWESOME!

Much like anything with parenting, there’s no one-size-fits-everyone solution for how to do something.

So if sticker charts, candy rewards, or access to watching a favorite cartoon is your jam and that worked for teaching your child to go potty, then I say..

Bravo on potty training your toddler! Yay!

Now what about everything you read about rewards in Oh Crap Potty Training?

And why are we not fans of rewards for teaching your child to use the potty?

Why not offer a sticker or lollipop when it’s time to potty train your toddler? There are certainly children who can pick up toilet learning with simple reward-based incentives.

Here are 5 things to know before you choose what feels like the best potty plan for your kiddo.

Because remember, mamas, you are the expert on your kiddo. And no shame in trying something, whether it works or it doesn’t. We’re all doing the best we can.  

Are rewards the magic trick to potty training?

Here are 5 reasons why we discourage rewards with potty training in Oh Crap Potty Training.

1. When it doesn't work, it can go really wrong.

What can happen when a sticker/lollipop/promise of Peppa Pig does not make her follow your call to go potty?

Epic power struggles.

The potty training window is around ages 2 to 3 when your child is a *toddler*.

And toddlers don't always like to smile when asked to smile, put on winter gear when it's blustery cold outdoors, or go potty when a sticker is being dangled as the reward.

In fact, toddlers seem to have an amazing sense of knowing just when you really want them to do something.

And that's typically when they choose to hold onto their rope and not let go.

We see many many instances where rewards can create a messy spiral of escalating power struggles with toddlers. Because once the child stops being compliant, stops caring about the reward, then you don't have many options as the parent.

Offer a bigger reward?

We've seen toys being offered in exchange for a poop in the potty. Jamie had a case where a trip to Disney was offered. (Yet, it didn't work.) It's a spiral that can easily get out-of-hand.

2. Rewards break the team spirit needed in potty training.

Rewards are commonly used with another big issue we tackle with toddlers — how to get your kiddo to clean up their toys. A sticker reward for a quick cleanup of toys (minus any whining) before dinner can work well with some toddlers.

What happens when it doesn't?

You feel like your kiddo is having a defiant moment. And it's true that your toddler's refusal to do the task is likely coming from a place of *I'm my own person* or simply that *no no no* inner monologue that is a part of toddler life.

But with cleaning up toys, you know for sure it's behavior.

The problem with potty training? Many times it's not about behavior.

So what happens when your child doesn't step up to go potty for that sticker?

Resistance to clean up toys is about behavior. Resistance to go pee in the potty often is not.

You feel like your child is being defiant, difficult..compared to your first kiddo (who easily peed in the potty with that same reward.)

But what is likely happening is your child is having a real issue.

Resistance to using the potty can surface and typically has nothing to do with behavior.

  • It could be a learning glitch.

  • It could be a physical issue.

  • It could be a fear of releasing pee or poop in the potty.

But in most cases of resistance, it has nothing to do with the child trying to pull the parent chain.

Instead, the child is trying to be compliant — and would go potty if he could.

Imagine if you were trying to be compliant and cooperative but were stuck. And then you were met with a vibe that you're not doing what you're supposed to.

You're told you're being naughty and defiant.

Pretty crushing to the confidence, right?

Also, that whole vibe basically pits the parent against the child.

What you want is for the parent to team up with the child. That's when it works like magic.

Potty training works when you're on the same team.

3. Potty training is your first teachable moment as a parent.

You don't teach your kiddos to walk or crawl — or even really, how to talk. Those milestones all happen naturally without you stepping in and *doing* anything for the most part.

But using the potty is a social norm that has to be taught.

And it's the first big milestone that's on you as the parent to teach.

By setting the process up based on rewards, you miss out on teaching your child this big new skill. Potty training is a process that can be a bonding time for the parent and child.

(I felt that as I went through the process as, of course, it is an intimate part of life.)

There will be misses along the way (both the child, and likely, you as a parent).

Related: Here's how to handle those accidents, so your toddler's confidence doesn't tank.

Mistakes are how we learn. How your child learns to use the potty.

And how you get a good look into how your child (a unique individual person) learns a new challenge.

You'll be learning so much about your toddler in the potty training process, too. And it sets you up to be a better teacher to your child going forward when the next challenge comes up (learning clock time, tying your shoes, etc).

4. When to stop doling out the rewards.