Reinforcing Proper Conduct in Children

Q: Three months ago, we began training our oldest child, a boy, who just turned three. Initially, all went well, as he remained dry throughout the day after only a couple of weeks. And my wife and I were feeling very proud of ourselves. But getting our son to move his bowels has proven to be a much bigger challenge.

At first, we just resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be “accidents.” We figured eventually, he would get used to the idea and let us know when he needed to use the bathroom. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. What is happening now is that he holds himself back for days at a time. As a result, when he finally does relieve himself, it is painful for him. And this creates a vicious cycle making him even more resistant to using the toilet than before.

We are not concerned about having two children in diapers (our youngest boy is 11 months old). But we are worried about the long-term impact on our three-year-old’s health if this continues any longer.

My wife and I are at our wits end and would greatly appreciate your advice.

A: The key to unlocking the mystery of your oldest son’s behavior can be found in the critical piece of information you added as an afterthought at the end of your letter. You and your wife were blessed with a second child when your oldest had just turned two. And you may not have grasped the full impact of that event.

For two years, your oldest was king of the roost. Then, suddenly, an interloper came into your family and usurped much of the attention which used to be focused on him. As long as the baby slept most of the day and stayed put, he was not too much of a threat. Once he began to crawl around the house, however, he became more of a person and, as a result, a real competitor.

These changes in the dynamics of your family occurred at the same time you were trying to toilet train your oldest child. I am not suggesting that you should have waited. At three-years­ ­ -old, he should be learning this important developmental task. You need to be more aware, however, of what he is struggling with so you can address his emotional needs and your parenting agenda at the same time.

Your son is acting out his dissatisfaction with the new arrival in the only way he knows, by withholding from you that which you want from him. This is by no means fully conscious or deliberate. Nevertheless, in order to proceed with the training, you are going to have to do a better job of convincing him of two things. First, he needs reassurance that his position in the family is secure, in spite of the new addition. And, secondly, he must be convinced that relieving himself sooner is to his advantage not just to yours.

Let’s start with the latter task. You must inform you oldest son that he will receive a small prize immediately after each bowel movement made in the toilet. Sweets work best. If you are opposed to candy or nosh on nutritional grounds, then you could use small, very inexpensive toys like the ones available for $1 per dozen. Either way, it must be something which appeals to him to be effective.

At the same time, you must also let him know that he will receive a much larger item once he has moved his bowels in the bathroom for four or five times. Since a three-year-old cannot count, numbers are meaningless. Therefore, you will need to draw a simple five box chart. In addition to the treat, he will receive a sticker each time to place on the chart. In this way, he will have concrete and visual reinforcement as he monitors his progress towards the goal of the bigger prize. And, as an added incentive, you should purchase the larger toy immediately and then place it out of reach until he “earns” it.

The first task can be accomplished by “private time” with your oldest son. Tell him you want time with him alone each week. At the same day and time, keep this “appointment” with him and let him set the agenda. He could choose a game to play with you, for example, or a book for you to read to him. More detailed instructions for implementing this can be found in my book, Partners With Hashem, Vol. I, p. 32-33.

Hopefully, the private time will make your son feel less threatened by his younger brother. And the treats and major reward will provide the necessary incentive to help him master this developmental task.


The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.