Thursday, January 2, 2003

Toilet Training and Incentives: Child No.1

We have just started toilet training our two year old son. Actually, it is more like pre-toilet training: just to get him used to the idea that there is life free of a nappy. Basically, we have a year to achieve this before he starts pre-school.

We have reason to be optimistic, we did this once before with our (now) four year old daughter. And this time, if we can avoid some of the mistakes we will hopefully make this an easier transition.

Those mistakes were numerous and some of them were easily anticipated had I used game theory properly.

To see what I mean you have to think a little about incentives. Toilet training is an exercise in behaviour modification: to convince an otherwise happy and content child that they have to take responsibility for their own actions; namely, toileting. Now, any economist would tell you that to achieve this you have to get the price right. That is, what reward do you need to offer to get the behaviour you want.

We didn't start out that way. We thought we would appeal to some broad, vague sense that it would be good to grow up and wouldn't that be 'exciting.' Those claims had about the same impact as calls for whiter, brighter towels.

So it wasn't long before the incentives -- or in common terms shameless bribery -- took in. But there is not a lot to work with with a two year old. While money can appeal to adults above the age of 8, for those younger you have to appeal to a base motive. For us, all we had was food; in particular, 'special' food.

It was fortunate that we had decided at some earlier point -- several weeks earlier -- to make a distinction between your general food (food that we would always allow our daughter to have) and special food (food that we would virtually never allow her to have). Into the former category fell rice cakes, fruit, yogurt, chicken and all vegetables. Into the latter category fell virtually everything else. So we had lots to work with.

We decided to begin with jelly beans. The basic reward was to give out jelly beans for successful toileting behaviour. You got one or two jelly beans depending upon what you did with one for -- you get the rest.

But the whole scheme went further. There was simply a bag of beans but a whole publicly displayed apparatus that required the push of a button to dispense a bean. You see, the jelly bean is the reward but game theory teaches us that unless the 'incentive contract' (that link between action and reward) is clearly communicated it won't work. So we decided to apply this reward universally. That is, anyone -- including us and our guests -- would be entitled to a jelly bean as they emerged from the toilet.

So I would emerge from the bathroom to find my daughter standing outside asking me if I could have one or two jelly beans. If we forgot to take one, we would be reminded. Outsiders could monitor the whole household's performance as they came in.

Did this work? It certainly put the whole issue on the table and our daughter showed much interest in spending time on the potty. But, after a couple of weeks, we had little to show for it except for a personal dislike of jelly beans as their consumption came to us to be associated with unpleasant activities. My partner tried to disguise her toileting activities to avoid having any more!

At this point, we had to contemplate a ratcheting up of the reward -- to chocolate frogs. This was a decision we did not take lightly as we were well aware that at some point we will want to end our little incentive contract. But we knew that if anything was going to get the behaviour we wanted it was going to be this; we would work on our exit strategy later.

To a casual observer, this did the trick. While precious few jelly beans had been awarded to our daughter, she was getting two or three chocolate frogs a day. Moreover, we had started saving on nappies.

Alas, a more careful audit of our household performance would reveal a more problematic story. Our daughter realised that she could successfully get a frog by simply waiting. If you sit on the toilet long enough something will happen. And so she did this, for hours and hours on end.

Now we let this go for a while in the hope she would get more control and feeling about her own bodily functions. When she didn't appear to tire of these activities, we changed the reward. She was only allowed to sit on the toilet for short (!) half hour bursts.

After a week, she began to anticipate her needs. However, no sooner had we fixed one problem that another began; she got too much control! Our daughter realised that by holding back, she could convert one trip to the toilet into two or three and triple her frog consumption.

It was then that we decided to phase out our rewards program; we did it with fear -- of eliminating all of our good work. But we did it slowly; first, by increasing her quota (the period of time over which she had to exclusively use the toilet, and then by removing the reward entirely.

Suffice it to say, there was no reverson and all in all we were happy with the outcome. Eventually, our initial hoped for motive: getting out of nappies and into more exciting undies took over. But the management process was painful and it is unclear whether this wouldn't have all happened of its own accord anyway. Next time around we will wait a little longer, check for signs of readiness and go for a big bang behavioural change. Let's see how that goes.