Potty training without rewards?! If this sounds like a nightmare, prepare for a mind-blowing perspective shift…
Society tells us potty training is messy, time-consuming, and downright stressful. So we work to make the process easier with a few M&Ms or a Paw Patrol sticker chart.
Unfortunately, rewards may do little to foster long-term internal motivation in toddlers. It may even turn the potty training journey into one giant power struggle.
This post will examine what the research says about using rewards to drive children’s behavior. Additionally, we will discuss seven key positive parenting techniques for potty training effectively without rewards.
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Should you use rewards for potty training?
Many parents believe that rewards are the key to potty training success.
And why wouldn’t they? Experts have preached positive reinforcement for years as an optimal parenting and discipline tool.
What the research says about rewards
The use of rewards to drive children’s behavior and motivation has been a heavily debated, hot-button topic among researchers and educators.
Here are a few key findings to consider:
- Preschool-age children often prefer choices and exploration over tangible rewards
- Children may be less likely to choose prosocial behavior on their own if they previously earned a reward (e.g., sharing)
- Young children are more likely to engage in “cheating behavior” when promised a reward for a task
Ultimately, Positive Discipline does not condone the use of tangible rewards.
Do rewards work for potty training?
Providing tangible rewards such as stickers or candy to reinforce a task serves as an external motivator.
While this may work in the short term, it often does little to drive long-term, internal motivation.
The long-term challenges of potty training rewards
Once you introduce rewards, your child may expect that M&M or Paw Patrol sticker the next time you ask them to sit on the potty.
Rewards may shift focus from learning their body’s natural cues to earning the new prize.
To make matters worse, the novelty of rewards tends to wear off quickly for young children. While one day their reward may be a single Skittle, the next day it may grow to 5 Skittles, an ice cream cone… or a trip to Walt Disney World*!
*Renowned potty-training expert, Jamie Glowacki, has noted seeing this level of bribery and preaches against it!
Rewards & toddler development
It is no secret that toddlers crave autonomy. They tend to dig in their heels when they feel coerced.
Rewards may backfire and turn a new opportunity for independence into a power struggle.
“So really… no potty training rewards charts?!”
If you’ve been using or planned to use a potty training rewards chart, know this: You are a great parent.
We’ve repeatedly heard that “good parents use positive reinforcement.”
While rewards are more favorable than harsh punishments, there are key positive parenting tools better suited to foster internal motivation in young children.
How to stop giving rewards for potty training
If you’ve already gone down the reward rabbit hole, it’s not too late to change your approach.
First, you’ll need to break the association between rewards and using the potty. Allow your former reward to exist neutrally in your day-to-day routine.
For example, enjoy some M&Ms at your child’s regular snack time, or do a fun arts and craft project with those Paw Patrol stickers. Allow your previous reward to become a “just because” activity, regardless of your child’s choices or abilities.
7 Positive Parenting Tips for Potty Training Without Rewards
Positive parenting tools are a great alternative for families looking to go reward-free. This post will cover seven key tips based on basic positive parenting principles (that you can apply to most other challenging behavior in the early childhood years!)
#1: Teach “the potty routine” through play and books
Teaching through play is one of the most effective ways to remove power struggles from your child’s potty training journey.
Spend some time playing with your child and practicing a “potty routine” using a favorite toy (e.g., sit on the potty, flush, wash hands). Toddlers much prefer teaching and helping others (even imaginary friends) than being told what to do!
Reading children’s books together about the potty routine is a great introductory step as well. Here are a few of our family’s favorite play-based potty training toys and books:
#2: Follow your child’s lead (signs of readiness)
Society tells parents that potty training is a box to rush and check over a long weekend.
However, keeping things calm and consistent often yields faster results, provided your child is ready. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, signs of readiness (e.g., showing interest, ability to up/pull down pants, etc.) usually emerge anytime after 18 months.
#3: Keep it low-pressure
Around 18 months of age, you may gradually begin offering the potty before/after naps or bedtime. If they say no, don’t force it.
The goal is to build intrinsic motivation and encourage your child to listen to their body. Keeping your emotions and expectations out of the equation is the easiest way to accomplish this mission.
Once your child shows interest and accepts the offer consistently, you’ll know it’s go time. They’re likely ready for more frequent offerings followed by the switch to underwear.
#4: Swap a reward chart with a visual routine chart
If you’re a big fan of charts, consider swapping your reward chart with a visual routine chart to empower internal motivation in your toddler. Rather than you rewarding them for using the potty, a visual routine chart allows them to feel in control.
Create a chart of your morning and nighttime routine together. Then instead of demanding that your child use the potty, you can ask, “What’s next on your routine chart?”
Let the order of your routine do the hard work for you. Instead of saying, “If you don’t go potty, there won’t be a story tonight,” try “I’ll know you’re ready for storytime once you’ve tried to go potty.”
#5: Trust your child
Demonstrate that you believe in your child and their ability to learn their body’s natural cues. This does wonders for a child’s self-confidence in the potty training process. Use language such as:
“Listen to your body. Do you need to go potty now or after snack?”
Notice we’re not asking, “Do you want to go potty?” as most kids will quickly decline. However, empowering them towards autonomy through choices, rather than coercive tactics, goes a long way in reducing power struggles.
#6 Rely on natural consequences
Will there be accidents? 100% yes!
Embrace that accidents are part of the learning process. In positive parenting, we call this a “natural consequence.” Natural consequences are highly effective teaching tools compared to punishments.
Natural consequences occur without adult intervention. For example, upon having an accident, your child will feel wet/soiled and uncomfortable. They will then need to stop what they are doing to get back in dry clothes.
Natural consequences are easy when we know when to get out of the way. We just have to step back and let them unfold.
The problem with punishments
Punishments require adult intervention and are usually selected randomly. They fail to link cause and effect. For example, taking away screen time for having an accident will do little to prevent future accidents.
If you’re concerned your child is having “too many” accidents, you may need to adjust expectations or revisit their signs of readiness.
#7 Replace rewards with self-recognition
Overcoming challenges and learning something new feels awesome! Allow this natural, positive outcome to reinforce the potty training process for your child.
Rather than shelling out stickers or doing your happy dance, focus on your child and their feelings. For example, “You listened to your body and knew it was time to go potty. How did that feel? You must feel so proud of yourself!”
The last thing you need to know about potty training without rewards
In any aspect of parenting, be wary of tactics that offer a “quick fix,” as these often come with unintended long-term consequences.
Positive, respectful parenting is a marathon and not a sprint. The good news is that once you’ve mastered the basic principles, it’s much easier to feel confident in tackling future challenges.
If you would like to learn more about positive parenting, I’d love to partner with you in Such a Little While’s free positive parenting challenge. You’ll receive a no-cost PDF workbook and enrollment in our free 30-day email course. Together, we’ve got this!