Potty Training, Daytime and Nighttime: Secrets Revealed

Black bear and cub in YosemiteI don’t want to write about potty training. I’ll have to type the word “potty” too many times, and my true potty humor will be revealed, like a dirty diaper that manifests itself through multiple layers of clothing, in a restaurant, at the back of a plane. Plus, I don’t want to unwrap any disturbing memories for parents who suffer from potty training stress disorder (PTSD). But, I feel an obligation to share my experiences, successes and failures, with one of the stinkiest stages of raising a human.

I should clarify that I’m not going to touch number two. OK, I will share a quick story. We were on vacation and staying with family at some point in the past, I think it was last summer, or before that. I know it was before today, and I do remember that the perpetrator was our fourth child. He was probably one at the time, and I had just released him from the bathtub, when he escaped into the hallway and immediately doo-dooed on my sister-in-law’s new hardwood floor. I heard some commotion and peeked from the bathroom to see what was going down. C®@p. You guessed it.

I ran to the scene, and without really considering the ramifications, I grabbed what I could with my bare hands and carried it to the toilet! No one was there to witness it, so I announced to the rest of the house, “Um, I’m carrying poop, in my hand!” That was not a proud exclamation. I wasn’t triumphant or happy, looking for congratulations. I was scared. It was more like an urgent distress call. It was a state of emergency. All hands on the poop deck.

On the bright side… no, never mind, there is no bright side.

I should also clarify our current urination situation. We now have children at all stages of bladder control, from zero to almost fully functional, from diapers all the time, to diapers at night, to only occasionally needing a diaper at night. That’s the gamut. That’s a ton of diapers. Really, if you add them all up, it might be a ton. Gross.

OK, I’m tired of writing about poop and pee already, so I’m just going to list a few of the things I’ve seen and learned so far:

  1. Like most of the unpleasant challenges in parenting, potty training is just a stage of life, and it’s usually successful. We’ve got four down and one to go. Most days I can look back and laugh at how absurd it was to go through ten or more diapers in a day. It’s like that canoeing trip where the lake was so turbulent and there was so much snow we had to portage for three miles. Though it was grueling, and produced many aches and blisters, in hindsight, it was a good experience. Actually, potty training is never a good experience, especially in hindsight, but, it does come to an end (sorry).
  2. Potty training can be a battle, and your kids have considerable leverage. With ease and without shame, they can ruin your carpet, and bring any event to a screeching, smelly halt. Their bowel movement can become a weapon of mass destruction. As in any parenting conflict, you have to stay calm and keep emotions out of it, or at least hide them until later. Disappointment is OK. I don’t think anger or frustration are, though sometimes they can’t be avoided.
  3. Every kid is different. Our first was brilliant. At 20 months, he abandoned the diaper like a bad habit and has never looked back. Others have struggled with it, and have required reward systems, encouragement, and months of patient and sometimes not-so-patient reminders. So, you have to be flexible. The potty boot camp may work well for one kid but not another.
  4. Before the days of carpets, and houses with floors, and super-absorbent diapers, I imagine that kids just roamed free and learned quickly about the consequences of their actions, so to speak. Today, the diaper takes care of it before the kid can realize what’s happening. I think potty training could be a lot easier if it weren’t preceded by diaper training. But I’m not sure there’s any way around it.

If you’ve made it this far, I will share with you my greatest discovery in potty training. The nighttime was a mystery to us. All of our kids have needed pullups at night for at least two years after they’re trained in the day. That just seemed unreasonable to me. But, based on parenting advice, nighttime training is really just a matter of time – some kids aren’t ready, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Suspecting that was a myth propagated by the diaper companies, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Two of our kids were in diapers at night, as of last year. I set my alarm to go off at two hour increments, from 10PM to 6AM, and took them both to the bathroom five times a night, every night, for about two months. It was grueling, like a three-mile canoe portage, but at night. I lost some good somnia, and my REM are still cycling. But it worked. After two months, the older of the two was a pro, either holding it or waking herself up. The younger still had an occasional accident, so I gradually reduced the number of sleep disruptions, and now, a year later, she’s a champion.

That’s all I’ve got, for now. I have to give props to my wife, who does the majority of the potty work. It’s a thankless task and my contribution has been a fraction of hers. To all you parents out there, keep your nose plugged, keep your kids in the bathroom till they’re dressed, keep your emotions in check, and you’ll pull through.

Wildwood Lake, Nebraska

sunrise at wildwood lakeLast weekend the temperature jumped to 50 °F, with clear skies and an overnight low around freezing. Those seemed like prime conditions for introducing a toddler to winter camping. I decided to take the four older kids to Wildwood Lake, a tiny reservoir hiding among the corn and soybean fields about 45 minutes north of Lincoln.

Wildwood is free, semi-primitive camping. Semi-primitive includes latrines and fire pits, but no running water and no designated sites. As a result, you have to stake your claim. That’s not a problem in the winter. We saw a dozen or so people ice fishing on the lake, but ours was the only tent on the entire shoreline.

The kids behaved like they owned the place. They shouted to each other when it was absolutely not necessary – when they were only a few inches apart and when they didn’t actually have anything to say. For example, “Hey, Anthony! Are you hitting that stick on that rock!? Whoa!” They also never stop running places. Unnecessary yelling and running are two signs of a successful outing.

The kids really staked our claim by never using the latrine. Not once. Peeing in the middle of nowhere, or right next to where you’re going to sleep, is one of the simple beauties of camping. It’s especially fun for a newly potty-trained two-year-old, though it’s also strange at first, given that pottying anywhere but in the toilet is usually a problem.

ice fishing at wildwood lake

Walking on a lake is really strange, too. My oldest was fine, but the others, especially the toddler, were spooked. They were very cautious for the first 30 minutes or so, looking down to scrutinize each step, and then looking up to remind themselves that other people were doing this too. I could see the wheels turning in their little heads: “Is this OK? Well, dad’s doing it. But dad is crazy. I think he eats bugs. Oh, other people are doing it too. And they look normal. Wait, that one is eating candy!”

Really, as soon as the candy comes out, everything is OK. We lasted for about an hour out on the ice. The kids ate candy and then transitioned to nuts and these amazing dried bananas from Costco that taste just like candy. But, with the warmer weather, the surface of the lake was becoming one giant puddle, making it difficult to run without slipping. Once everyone had confirmed this to be true, we decided to head back.

At camp, amidst the yelling, running, and peeing, I’m continually reminding the kids that these freedoms are only available when we’re camping. My goal here is to make camping seem super rad, building it up into the greatest thing that has ever happened to them, partly because I want them to share in my obsession, and partly because it’s getting cold as the sun sets and two of the kids are going to realize that mom is not there to comfort them.

wildwood lake campfire

We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows and then started the transition to bed time at about 7PM. Transitioning from party time to bed time is one of the major challenges of camping with kids. Sadly, the party has to end – no more running, peeing, or yelling. No more candy. None of these are compatible with sleep. It is tragic, really.

The younger two kids lost it soon after we got in the tent – their toes were cold, they were still hungry, and they wanted mom. But, after about 20 minutes of tears, I finally prevailed by reading to them from Call of the Wild. My explanation of “the dominant primordial beast” put them right to sleep.

Nebraska: A Different Kind of Great Outdoors

Backyard bonfire In case you missed it, in 2012 we moved from one Midwest city, Minneapolis, Minnesota, to an even more Midwest city, the solitary Lincoln, Nebraska. Both are very flat, no-nonsense, Midwestern places to work and live, but one contains a surprising number of things to do outdoors, despite its consistent lack of altitude. Most of these things to do involve H2O, whether in liquid or solid form. I’m talking about the land o’ lakes, of course. It was there, among the water and snow, that I soaked and froze my butt off. I also started to appreciate the gentler side of nature, one that’s without ocean or mountains but still 100% natural. And 100% cold.

Lincoln, which appears on a map to be the absolute center of the US, surrounded by more country than any other point, is lacking in altitude and all other forms of topography. As of 2012, it was declared to be the furthest I have ever been from things to do outdoors. In that first year here we camped out just one night in 365. Abysmal. For someone who dreams of retiring to a yurt, that was a bit of a downer. But I’m better now. I’m over it. After a year and a half in the flatland, I’ve decided that nature is in the eye of the beholder, and lots of other deep thoughts about perception and attitude.

What has taught me this great wisdom, you ask? I got desperate. First, I built a fire pit in our backyard. We have bonfires and roast mallows whenever we want now. And Nebraska is totally OK with that.

Second, I bike everywhere. Like Forest Gump, but on a bike. Previously, I would come in contact with the elements mostly during carefully planned excursions. I think that’s how it works for many outdoors folks. Before and after the big trip, we’re in a house or a car or other man-made structure for weeks or months, breathing conditioned air full of asbestos and other unnatural nastiness, dreaming of an adventure. But bike commuting puts you outside daily – more oxygen, more wind, water, earth. More elements in your face than on all your regular outings combined. Ironically, before coming to Nebraska, I never spent so much time outside.

Lincoln is connected by a nice, paved trail system. When I was a kid, we called them green belts, strips of grass, trees, and trails that usually protect creeks from residential areas and other development. Lincoln has a bunch of them, and most of my 8 miles to work are on them. This week I was biking just after sunrise and I jumped a red-tailed hawk perched near the creek. Not a big deal, until he decided to cruise along with me for about 30 seconds! I could have spit on him, if I were a camel. Of course, he could have pooped on me, so we called a truce. We were buddies, enjoying a little slice of green space in the middle of the city. Nebraska’s birds of prey are very courteous. They make you feel like Mary Poppins, or pretty much any of the Disney princesses.

Finally, to fit in, I’ve also started hunting. I’m a convert. I’ll describe the experience some other time because I’d get sidetracked by how strange it is to go from loving nature to also killing and eating it, to go from granola-eating tree hugger, to venison-eating gun slinger. Actually, I’ve only bow hunted so far. And I caught my first buck from a tree stand, last fall, so I am still hugging trees, sort of. The point is, hunting has taken my appreciation for the outdoors to a new level.

A good friend of mine has been my mentor through the conversion to hunting, helping me ease into a hobby, maybe even a lifestyle, that most people who hunt, I imagine, are raised with. I realized that I was stepping into something very strange and new when we were walking through the woods and my friend picked up some deer droppings and squished them between his fingers. “Squishy poo,” he said, was fresher and meant that deer had passed by recently. I had to raise my eyebrows to their maximum height on this one. A father is no stranger to squishy poo, of course, but I usually avoid skin-to-poo contact if at all possible. I guess handling deer feces is something I’ll have to get used too.

Anyway, this is all to say that Lincoln and Nebraska are both very livable, even for a former Californian (said while doing a hang-loose hand wiggle). The outdoors here are just a different kind of great. They’re great big, empty, windy, and isolated, with an occasional tornado. People may not get it at first. Without the mountains or lakes you end up focusing more on the dirt and the animals and the air and the deer poop. It’s less exciting, yes, and sometimes a little bland, but still filling and satisfying. The outdoors, that is.

Investing in Family

In a much earlier post, my first, on whether or not parenting is worth it, I described a simple cost/benefit analysis of parenting: the benefits, though often brief and intangible, far outweigh the costs, which include all our time, money, energy, and sanity.

Physically, emotionally, and economically, parenting doesn’t make dollars or sense. The list of personal returns for parents is short. But the list is long and substantial if we take a different perspective than our own, to consider returns that don’t come directly to us, ones that come to our kids and our family.

Before taking out student loans in college we had to sit through a little seminar on financial management. The instructor skimmed over the basics and then spent most of the time on what was clearly her favorite part, the secret to success and fortune: compounding. If we invest early on and take advantage of compounding interest we can be millionaires by sixty.

I’m not sixty or a millionaire, but I believe that family is an investment too. We invest in our children’s health and future, and in the future of our relationship with them. We invest in our marriage. I mentioned here that the same forces at work with financial investments apply to investments in family as well; as with money, compounding interest is the secret to creating rich relationships with loved ones, to finding family success and fortune.

The problem is, it’s often one or the other, family versus career, and we have to find balance. Finding balance was a main theme of my twenties, and it continues to be a challenge. Keep in mind that my kids are seven and under, so I’m not an expert. I’m just trying to plan ahead. Here are a few thoughts that are helping me along the way.

First, now is the time to invest. Young kids seem pretty resilient and it’s tempting to write them off, to give them an IOU or a rain check for our time and attention, to address concerns as they come up. The problem is, we need to prepare for the storms, save now for a rainy day. As we teach them, play with them, and hang out with them while they’re young, we build a foundation of support that they will later rely on, or so I hope. When they’re older, and the going really gets tough, and they may not want to have anything to do with us, they’ll have the resiliency and character to get them through.

Second, investing in family can be simple. Puzzles, books, board games, and walks all count. Doing chores together counts too. We need to spend regular, everyday time with our kids.

I think one of the drawbacks to the industrial revolution was a separation between work and home. Back when everyone was a farmer, work time and family time were inseparable. I can imagine mammy, pappy, and the kids all felling a tree together one day, and the next day raising the barn together. Back before cities and careers, mam and pap spent exorbitant amounts of time doing basic chores with the lads and lasses.

Don’t get me wrong. Hospitals and manufacturing and education are great. But our kids lose out when they never see us work, or when they don’t work with us to achieve a goal and high-five afterwards, or when our time with them has to be structured around an activity or special event. We need to do boring things together too, if only to teach them how to whistle while they work, and how to keep working through setbacks.

Third, once in a while, we need to do something epic. Day to day, I learned a lot from my parents about the importance of work ethic, faith, and a positive attitude, but on our road trips and campouts we got to experience awesome things together.

The Grand Canyon is epic. After driving for hours through desolate, flat desert, you arrive abruptly at the edge of the world. Standing on the rim, you’re a mile high, with a hundred miles of chasm in either direction. Your view is overwhelmed by millions of years of geological history. In an instant you see how great and ancient the earth is, and how infantile you are in comparison. The word infinity gains new meaning.

Trips to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Big Sur, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Banff are burned in my memory. And I shared them all with my fam. In addition to the simple, regular experiences, we need powerful, memorable ones with our loved ones too, if only to connect with them on another level.

Our kids are like startups, and we have to invest much, early, to ensure their success.

Thinking While Parenting

Since I officially became an adult, I’m trying to spend more time thinking and less time not thinking (see here). It sounds simple enough, but thinking is nearly impossible in a house that’s being ambushed and taken over by kids.

If ideas are light, parenting is a merciless black hole, the antithesis of thought. There’s always a distraction, a child in distress, an offensive noise or sound, to counteract an idea just as it forms in our mind. Because of its mass and gravitational pull, parenting consumes but doesn’t reflect light.

Living on the event horizon of a black hole is problematic for two reasons. First, life disappears with little to show for it; fewer thoughts produce fewer memories (again, see here). Second, the result of not thinking, day after day, is learned thoughtlessness, a habitual state of unconscious reaction. Unconscious habit is the path of least resistance, one with a deep rut down the center, and we go where it takes us.

The path of default reactions takes us to the Doldrums, a parenting Slump, where the days are dreary and mundane, our kids are noisy and pesky, and the future is bleak. Unconsciously, we end up interpreting our experiences through the lens of self, in terms of our own wants and needs (see This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace). Parenting becomes a drag, a responsibility that we willingly accept, but one that gets in the way.

To break free, we have to realize that we created the black hole. We are the masters of our family universe, at least until our kids turn into teenagers, i.e., klingons. We have to get our acts together and take control of our mind and our inter-stellar situation.

Taking control requires creativity. For example, when the kids plug the sink and flood the bathroom, we can react in one of two ways. The first comes easily and without thought. It is driven by our exasperation at having to clean up another mess. It involves stern looks, harsh tones, and some form of punishment. The second comes with some difficulty and mental effort. It is driven by our desire to make the best of things, and to teach our kids to do the same. It involves instruction on the main functions and capacities of a toilet, and a demonstration of how cleaning up can be fun.

To think while parenting, we have to parent outside the box. When your kids give you a flooded bathroom, make an indoor slip-and-slide.

Recently, my wife went out of town and I had our third-dozen kids to myself for the weekend. One day, our girls tried to make pixie dust, spilling flour, sugar, and food coloring on the kitchen floor and then dancing through it and across the house. The house didn’t float away to never-never land. And I was not Peter Pan. I was Captain Hook.

Next time, I want to be Pan the Man. I want to be positive and make the best of the situation.

Thoughtful parenting leads to a conscious decision to be better, to change, to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive, to remember how fortunate we are just to be alive, to have these brief moments with the people we love most. It leads to a change in perspective, where instead of focusing on the darkness we focus on our family, brilliant stars, radiating light.