The potty-training theory of technology

I am the parent of 7 children. My oldest, almost old enough to scare pedestrians legally, and the potty-training escapades have not yet faded from my over-full memory bin. Since that time, my wife and I have survived 6 children learning to use the bathroom at the appropriate time. Now, we have 4 girls followed by three boys. This is an important detail that will later come back into this discussion.

Learning to use the bathroom, a new and exciting piece of technology for a toddler, is somewhat like learning to use new technology of any kind but, especially, I think, technology in education. Really.

For instance, my two oldest daughters are very close in age. The oldest, the one now getting ready for the Indy 500, was somewhat of a stubborn young thing. Being good parents, we read all the information we could find on raising children and what was the appropriate time for all the “firsts”. So, when we read that we should begin training, we nervously began planning our venture with the new technology. Now, my grandmother had some very sage advise that, unfortunately, we didn’t listen to at the time. It was “She’ll start using it when she’s ready.”

So we began. We purchased the newest of technological gadgets – a mini-potty with it’s own reading center and toilet role holder. People were so impressed with our purchase. (A friend of mine even tried to use it but that’s for another time.) We showed it to her. Let her sit on it to read, put toilet paper on it and showed her how to use it. At 2 years old and very advanced for her age, we figured she would seamlessly transfer to this new technology. Boy were we wrong!

You see, like all children learning to use new technology, showing them HOW to use it does not mean they WILL use it as it is meant to be used. In fact, there many lessons to learn from this little adventure. Firstly, there is no “right” age for learning to use this technology. Our 2 year old was nearly 3 when she used it. And, it had nothing to do with us “teaching” her. She would drag the potty into the living room and set up shop, sitting on it and watching tv, reading, colouring and using it as part of her house play but not once did it get used for its designed purpose. Her sister, 18 younger than her, was more interested in using it for training than she was. We’d bride her, get mad, get frustrated and all the rest. We even had her go without a diaper for awhile hoping that she’d get the idea. All that happened was that we had quite a few messes to clean up and our daughter was becoming traumatized. Here it was, two professional teachers trying to figure out how to get their daughter to use the bathroom – and we were out of ideas. Finally, defeated, we just let her continue as she was, diapered and happy.

Now, we were fairly traumatized as parents. How did we fail? We had the newest techynology. We read all the right materials and asked others who had successfully managed this technology use. Visions of our daughter, leading a life on the streets with all its horrible images haunted us. We even thought about seeking counseling in order to know what to do and to deal with our failure.

That Christmas, at a family gathering, her cousin – the same age as her pointed out to her that only babies wear diapers. We returned home and next day the diaper disappeared and the potty was in full use. No training pants, no accidents. One day diaper, next day potty trained. By introducing her to someone who was within her own peer group who had an influence, the conversion to using the new technology was easy – she had the knowledge it was the incentive that she needed.

The rest of our girls followed a similiar pattern of technology adoption with few setbacks. In fact, when our first son was born, we didn’t give this matter a second thought. The technology was the same but, ahem, the user was a bit different. (Note, if someone can invent a shields for the toilet sides, there would be a lot of parents with boys who would invest in them!) Now, the biggest change, besides the aim, was that boys tend to wait until the last minute second nano-second before making their dash. This is where my I learned that some technology users can adapt if there is the right pressure. See, my oldest son came dashing through the living room, obviously having to use the washroom (firm grip on front of pants), going first to the main bathroom, the ensuite and then starting downstairs only to be told it was being used. He returned to the livingroom, doing a new type of rain dance then spied something that would suffice. He dashed out the diningroom doors onto the deck, grabbed a pail and proceeded to use that, in full view of our company, to do the job. With much of the technology being open source, this type of innovative use is happening all the time where people, seeing a need and needing something to replace the old standard, are able to adjust things at the moment to create something new.

Right now our third boy should be beginning to train but, being veterans at this now, we know that starting something too early or not at the right time will just lead to untold accidents and much frustration. See, it’s winter here and everyone is pretty much bundled up like small perogies. When in training, the number of garments worn directly corresponds with the success of training. More than two layers, failure is highly probable so, for the time being, we’re okay with the way things are and, given that summer is about 5 months away, figure that by that time he’ll be more than happy to get into training much like some people who don’t want to look at technology. They see that the world is passing them by and finally figure that they should give it a try. Once they do, they don’t like to go back and look for ways to use the technology – kind of like having to use the washroom in every town you pass through when on a road trip. Is all the technology the same? (How come we don’t have a standup one in our home?)

Much of life, I’ve found, is really just more sophisticated versions of learning to many of the things that children learn to do in their early years. Could we make it through life not being able to use the bathroom? I guess but it sure would reduce the number of people we interact with, limit our social network and probably isolate us to a point that we’d have to figure out a way to change. So, next time you see one of those really cute pull-up commercials, just remember that on tv, no one pees off the deck!


  1. Pingback: The potty-training theory of technology | Technology

  2. Reply

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Allen Taylor

  3. Reply

    We had similar user problems with our first. It’s nice to see that with seven children the pressures on the technology directors seems to diminish. We only have two boys, so we didn’t really reap the same benefits of a whole test department. Cheers!

  4. roadrunner


    Great analogy – I look forward to quoting you!
    I found your blog through my classmate’s blog on the WoW session last night. sorry I missed it but will listen in to the recording. the network works.
    Cindy Seibel

  5. Reply

    Great post! I am using it with my technology team today to help them more fully appreciate the challenges that teachers have learning technology! : ) I also have a 7 year old!

  6. Reply

    Kelly, I laughed a lot while reading your post. Great memories! I have a few of those potty stories myself. We learned, too, that our children would make the move when they were ready and pushing them just didn’t work.

    The analogy holds together well for the most part, but it is that sense of necessity and critical mass that concerns me. Too many teachers are comfortable in their diapers or training pants to bother finding out where the bathrooms are. When whole schools of teachers are wearing diapers, where are they going to see teachers who are not only using the toilet but are handing out maps to where they are in the building? The message of the imperative need for using the toilet appropriately has to get out somehow.

    Thanks for the great post! It made me laugh and think.

  7. Reply

    Allen – I hope you find something useful in what you read. For the most part, I ‘m just writing about how what I do informs my learning and leading.

    Ann – having the a whole department of test subjects in my own house does help me to understand what the possiblities might be if we were doing things differently.

    roadrunner – I’m sure if you look you will find the podcast. Do you have a link to your blog? I’d reallylike to add you to my reader list!

    kristen – I’m glad you were able to find something useful. Let me know how the group reacts to the training!

    Sharon – you’re right. I worry about those teachers too. I wonder when they’ll begin to understand that wearing a diaper now just doesn’t work and that they need to take the step and begin the training process. They not only need to learn where the bathrooms are but when to use them and how to use them appropriately not just checking out each restroom because they can.

  8. Reply

    Boy, have you got your hands full!

    My mother said that boys are more difficult to train than girls. Despite that fact, both my brother and I were toliet-trained before age 2. Mom took a week off from work to train each of us; my brother and I are 14 months apart.

    As a word of caution, and, speaking out of my butt, since I have not raised children, but basing this on my own upbringing and what I note via observing friends with child-rearing: Not sure I agree with taking the child’s lead re: toilet training. Case in point: I have a friend whose son was almost four by the time he was toiliet-trained. Hmmm.

    Analogous to teachers and technology: Like my mother, who trained us before 2 and took a week off from work, devote the necessary amounts of concentrated time and don’t wait for the teachers to come around.

  9. Pingback: Vygotsky’s ZPD, Potty Training and Core Technology Competencies « Digital Destiny - Computers in the Classroom

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