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Should we use rewards?
You may be familiar with the story of the parents who promised their child a trip to Disneyland if he would start using the toilet. The next day, the story goes, the child was fully potty trained and standing by the front door with his suitcase packed.
While it's true that incentives can help motivate children in certain circumstances, they tend to work best when a child just needs an extra little push to do something he's almost ready to do on his own. A 2-year-old in the beginning stages of potty training usually doesn't have the skills or self-motivation necessary to become trained just to earn a prize.
But if your child almost always remembers to use the potty when he's playing in his bedroom and forgets to go only when he's playing outdoors, for example, the promise of a reward for staying dry may give him the extra nudge to come inside when he feels the urge.
What kinds of incentives are best?
First of all, it's important to understand the difference between a reward and a bribe. The line can get a bit blurry here, but the essential difference is this: A reward follows the behavior you're trying to reinforce, and a bribe precedes it. Also, a reward should be given as soon as possible after the noble deed so as to make a firm association between the behavior and the positive reinforcement.
Some children, especially as they near the age of 3, can be tempted to use the potty if offered a reward afterward. Stickers, small prizes, a trip to the library or park, or playing a favorite game together may work well if your child is ready to potty train anyway. The reward motivates a child to keep practicing skills that might otherwise be less interesting to him.
Some parents begin by offering a reward for simply sitting on the potty, then later offer a reward only if the child actually pees or poops. Otherwise, some children will run to the potty every half hour and sit for a few minutes just to get something special.
Of course, there are always exceptions. If your child has special needs, you may have to be more creative and flexible with your reward system. The bottom line is to find the way to potty train that works best for you and your child.
What kinds of rewards don't work?
Don't use food to reward your preschooler when she uses the potty. Using food to reward your child reinforces potentially bad habits, like having her eat when she's not hungry. Also, giving your child a cookie or another sweet treat may teach her that junk food is better than healthier fare.
With children this young, it probably doesn't make sense to try using a chart system that tracks your child's progress. At this age, kids don't have a good enough understanding of time and delayed gratification to benefit from having their successes measured graphically.
Avoid using rewards to extract a promise from your child that needs to be kept far in the future, meaning more than two minutes from now. Lines such as "If we stop at the toy store on the way home to get you that game, you have to promise to use the toilet this afternoon" or "If I let you wear your party dress without a diaper, you have to promise me you won't have any accidents all day" probably won't do much good.
It's useless to ask a young child to stick to a promise for the future in exchange for something she wants in the moment. A 2-year-old can understand only the feelings, wants, and desires she is experiencing now. She can promise a parent anything, but at this age she shouldn't be expected to keep a promise, no matter what she says.
Don't punish your young child for saying she'll do something later and then not following through. She means well, but her promise just isn't a binding contract yet.