Potty Training Using Rewards
Using rewards is a common strategy when teaching young children to use the potty. According to author Elizabeth Pantley in her book, "The No-Cry Potty Training Solution" some polls show more than 80% of parents offer their children rewards or prizes for using the potty. So is this practice a good idea?
In general, I don't advocate using rewards as an incentive to influence children's behavior. When it comes to issues such as encouraging children to read, to clean up, to do homework or exhibit other "desirable" behaviors, studies have shown that rewards interfere with teaching children to find the inherent value in these behaviors and choices. Instead children are taught to find value in the external reward. Often when the reward is withdrawn, the desired behavior disappears. Educator Alfie Kohn has communicated this phenomenon eloquently in his book, "Punished by Rewards."
However, I will admit to having used a reward system in the potty learning of my three year old second daughter. Despite my support for Kohn's research, rewards in potty training felt different to me. While many of the behaviors I try to encourage my daughters are linked to larger values -- love of learning, taking care of belongings, respect for others, etc., I don't really link potty learning to one of these larger goals. I suppose one could call this rationalization and consider potty learning part of independence and self-care, but for my part, in this instance I just want her to put the pee and the poop in the potty and not in the diaper or underpants. I don't care as much if there is a larger lesson!
I also am less concerned with potty learning that there will be a reversion of behavior once we graduate from the rewards. Because control of urine and bowels, once learned, is such a physical instinct, I don't think she will start having accidents again once the reward incentive is gone.
Finally, I think that some children simply don't see potty learning as the quite as high a priority as do their parents. How many adults joke about newborn babies that it must be a nice life having someone feed you and wipe your bottom all day? This is different than a child not being physically ready to learn, but rather being ready, but choosing not to care. Lots of children dislike the feeling of going in a diaper, but if not bothered by it, some form of incentive may be helpful.
My daughter, even though she was physically ready to use the toilet and capable of doing so, decided at some point that it just wasn't worth it to her to interrupt her play to poop in the toilet. She had mastered peeing in the potty, and had successfully pooped there as well, but because it was less predictable simply wasn't willing to give her focus long enough to master the timing. After accidents she would communicate clearly that she didn't like to spend a lot of time on the toilet waiting and she didn't like to go several times and so it was just easier to go in the pull up. Or she would wait until the very last minute so she could be sure but then wasn't able to get there in time.
We first tried just using stickers to track when she sat and tried and when she was successful, to encourage her to at least sit and try more often. This did help, but was inconsistent with results. Then, we tried to offer her a prize each time she pooped in the potty successfully, but even that didn't work with her, because she would weigh each time whether it was worth it to her to stop playing and earn a prize. But once we changed it to a prize for each THREE times (each time she would put up a sticker), and she had something to work towards, she made the effort and rarely had an accident again. Now that she is successful nearly every day, she has agreed that soon we will stop doing the stickers and we will take her to a local theme park to celebrate the fact that she will use the potty all the time from now on but we won't do the stickers and prizes any longer.
Elizabeth Pantley makes two important points in her book related to using rewards. She explains that rewards will not help if the child is not physically ready to train. She gives several tools in her book to determine when a child is ready and suggestions for "pre-potty training" until that time.
She also explains that offering rewards is not an appropriate tool for night time training. Staying dry at night is a purely physical process, not a learning process like daytime potty training. Rewards are only helpful in helping a child (as with my daughter) make the decision to use the potty, but can't force them to do something they are not physically ready to do.
Here's the two books I mentioned above if looking for more advice on potty learning or on using rewards with children: