Friday, June 9, 2006

Toilet Training and Incentives: Child No.2 (Part II)

In my last post on this subject, I ended on a cliff-hanger. Child No.2 had been toilet trained by brute force but ...
... we were not done yet: incentives came back inforce when we moved on to night training. A much longer story for another time.
That time has come.

Night training is a particularly difficult business. Your child has the day down but, at night, they might be asleep or too drowsy to 'know the signs.' That means a period of time where they wear nappies or 'pull ups' at night. For parents, success occurs when it is dry in the morning and you are done when you get a week plus of success.

In relation to Child No.1, our philosophy was: what doesn't go in, doesn't go out. Her bed time was 6:30 so for two hours prior to that she was pretty much off fluids. This wasn't a conscious plan and we fell upon it by accident. But it worked and we achieved official night training. [Actually, it turns out that we were just lucky. Whatever chemical processes that needed to work, worked and the routine of before and after bed seemed to stick.]

We were not so lucky with Child No.2. For starters, he got thirsty and it is not really advisable to deny him water. But also it didn't quite click. He didn't seem too bothered about it all and we noticed that he would get up dry, claim he didn't need to go to the toilet and then go in his nappies, and later, pull-ups. This smelled (literally) of the basis of an incentive problem: his interests were not aligned with ours.

Pull-ups help here. They have little pictures that disappear if 'accidents' occur. This gave us a visible and external monitoring device. It was viewable both to us and our son. So that is the first thing we would check in the morning and a celebration would ensue if the pictures were there.

Celebrations only get you so far. We then moved to more tangible rewards. He was old enough to understand a 'points system' that would lead to rewards. So a dry night would get a point and 7 points would get you a reward -- usually, a book or toy. This was sufficient motivation and he was focused: "make sure the pictures don't go out and you get a point."

Well we had good nights and intermittent accidents. But then we had a week of dry pull-ups. Much rejoicing ensued including a bonus; no more pull-ups. Sadly, the next night there was an accident. Now you might say, these things happen. But it turns out that the problem was that these things hadn't happened.

Our son had a small rubbish bin in his room. Upon inspection, we found 5 full pull-ups. It turned out that our son was getting up in the morning, noticing the pictures gone and getting himself a new pull-up! There was nothing malicious in this. He just understood the rule as: "produce a pull-up with pictures." And so he worked out how to do just that.

This is just a reflection of the old adage; "you get what you pay for." We paid for dry pull-ups and that is what we got.

Now the response to this was to impose a new requirement: you have to have the same pull-up on in the morning as was put there last night. Easy to monitor and we did.

So we got a couple of nights of successes and the one morning I went into his room and found his bed wet. His pull-ups were dry. I asked him about this and he said "it just happened."

"But, how? It should have wet your pull-ups."

"No it wouldn't. I didn't have them on. They were on the night stand."


It turned out that he had been removing his pull-ups so as to ensure they were dry in the morning! I guess that worked. And we didn't notice because the relevant part of his body was concealed under the covers.

When it comes down to it, giving children incentives is a little like programming a computer. Unless you get the instructions just right, problems can ensue. It is like that time in Star Trek when Geordi programmed the holodeck for a game "that could defeat Data" (the android) and ended up creating a sentient program that almost destroyed the Enterprise.

So it was here. We focused on the pictures on the pull-up and that is where our son put his considerable creative energy on. What we needed was a 'program' that gave exactly what we wanted: no accidents. That is what we turned to after that night. It took some months but eventually we were successful only to be disrupted again following an operation. Nonetheless, since that time, we have moved focus away from the pull-up (although getting rid of them became a common incentive as he grew older) and on to the activity we cared about.

So the moral of this story, just like our story with Child No.1, is incentives can work but sometimes they can work too well. So much care and management is required.

Child No.3 is still too young but in the near future we will start this all over again. I am sure there will be yet another set of stories to tell.