Rethinking the Goal of Potty Training – Aim for Independence!

Potty Training Goal Independence

Aloha! My name is Heidi and my current area of expertise is potty learning. I can tell you all about small potties, travel potties, cloth training pants, you name it! I've spent the past 8 years learning about the various ways we can introduce our children to the potty: elimination communication (starting as early as birth!), Montessori toilet learning (12-18 months) & potty training (18+ months).

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Says Who?

Most parents these days learn about potty training from a Google search, friends and family, or maybe even a FB support group.

Many websites tell you the same sound bites over and over again, so they must be right! Or are they...?

Many of the ingrained notions about potty training are actually counter productive to the potty learning process: rewarding with M&Ms™ or stickers, setting a timer to offer the potty at set intervals, waiting for readiness. But I digress, this opinion piece is about the goal of potty training.

Before Starting Potty Training It's Important to Have: (1) A Plan & (2) An End Goal

If you rush into potty training without a clear plan and a well defined end goal, it isn't likely to be very successful. Our children look to us for guidance. If we aren't confident and consistent, our child isn't likely to be confident in completing this new task of using the potty. If you still don't have a plan of how you will approach potty training, take a look at the books we've included on our list of Potty Training Supplies. Or read how our family approached the transition from EC to potty independence.

Just to be clear, this post is not a how-to article on potty training. I wrote this post thinking of parents who are currently following Oh Crap, Potty Training! by Jamie Glowacki or The Tiny Potty Training Book by Andrea Olson, but are still struggling. Those two books present step-by-step plans for potty training. But it's also important to have an end goal in mind.

A couple of important pieces are missing from most potty training books. One is to start by defining your goal for potty training before beginning the potty training experience. Another missing piece is preparing the bathroom in a way that promotes independence.

What is the Goal of Potty Training?

Often when I hear from parents who are struggling with potty training it seems their goal is:

My child tells me every time he needs to pee or poop.

But why? Why is that the goal? First of all, it's the goal because Google and your best friend told you so. But what is really underlying this goal?

My hunch is that the parent wants their child to tell them when they need to use the bathroom because the parent doesn't want to completely give up control. They still want to be involved. They still want to be needed.

I understand. With my first child the transition from baby to toddler was really hard for me. When my son was a baby, I would notice a need, fulfill that need, and he would be happy. But once he became a toddler, he didn't always want what I was offering. He didn't always do what I asked him to do. Sometimes he would resist me...

Toddlers are known for resisting and throwing tantrums when someone tries to force them to do something. Once a child can competently use the potty, it's important for the parent to step back and take on an observational role. Potty training is not about Mom. It's not about Dad. Potty training is about your child learning to use the potty or toilet independently.

I'm always taken aback when I hear from a parent who wants their child to be "potty trained" in the sense of telling the parent when they need to pee or poop, but yet the parent is not okay with the child using the potty on their own. One such parent was firm that their child was not allowed to enter the bathroom by himself. I'm sorry, but if you don't allow a capable child to do this skill on his own, he has no intrinsic motivation to do it at all.

Once your child has learned the necessary skills and can recognize the feeling of needing to eliminate, it's important for the parent to allow the child the independence they desire.

We should reframe the goal of potty training to be more aligned with the Montessori toilet learning approach. Our goal should be:

My child uses the potty and completes the bathroom routine independently.

See the difference? This goal is about your child mastering an important life skill. It's their accomplishment. Another thing they can add to the list of "I do it myself!". Another source of self esteem.

Toddlers Love Doing Things Independently!

A helpful analogy is that my toddler daughter loves to eat independently. If we try to spoon feed a food to her she often refuses, acting completely uninterested. But put that same food in her bowl and give her a spoon or fork and she happily eats it on her own. She knows she can feed herself, and that's what she prefers to do. Yes, it's messier than if we spoon fed her, but that's part of the learning process.

Just like a toddler independently using the potty might be messier than it would be under our strict supervision and direction. The toilet paper might get unrolled. There might be pee drips on the floor. Or they might miss the toilet when dumping the small potty and the entire contents end up on the bathroom floor. It's a messy affair, but that's part of the learning process.

My daughter has practiced, and practiced, and practiced many skills until she got them down. And the pride of accomplishment was all her own.

She worked on the skill of twisting off and on a water bottle cap for about seven months before she finally got it. And when she did, it was her chance to beam with pride. She didn't get a chocolate chip each time she tried; she didn't get a toy when she finally succeeded; and I hadn't interfered with her numerous attempts by twisting the lid on myself. It wasn't that she wanted the lid to be on the bottle. She wanted to be the one to twist the lid onto the bottle herself.

If we take away our child's opportunity to master a new skill and do the bathroom routine independently, we take away the incentive to even try.

I've seen parents reach out with frustration about potty resistance. As soon as they say, "when I put my son on the potty," I'm like "stop right there!". That's the issue. Instead of you putting your child onto the potty, teach him to sit down onto the potty independently. It may sound like nothing to you. Just a technicality. But it may mean the world to your child.

Often, if even one tiny piece of the bathroom routine is a stumbling block for a child, they will give up and not even bother to try to get to the bathroom and pee in the potty. Can't push down my pants? Oh well, I'll just pee right where I'm standing.

Teach the skills necessary for potty independence and then step back and allow your child to bask in the joy of being able to "do it myself".

What Does Potty Independence Look Like?

Potty independence can come in different forms. At home it may look like a toddler:

  • Recognizing the feeling of needing to pee
  • Walking/running to the bathroom
  • Pushing down underwear
  • Sitting down onto a small potty independently
  • Patting dry with toilet paper or a cloth wipe
  • Dumping the potty into the big toilet
  • Flushing the big toilet
  • Climbing a step stool and washing hands in the sink
  • Drying hands on a low hanging towel
  • Attempting to put underwear back on but getting them on backwards and not quite covering their bottom
  • Going about their day

Don't fret if they don't do every step perfectly right off the bat. Practice makes perfect! And remember that even once a child is "potty trained" or "potty independent" they may still have accidents. Just be ready to clean up and move on.

A potty independent toddler may also use the potty based upon their parent prompting. A common time to prompt is right before leaving the house. My mother-in-law still reminds us all to use the toilet before we step out! Just don't over prompt and get on your child's nerves! How would you like it if your boss reminded you to use the bathroom every 30 minutes?

When out and about away from home, it is convenient if your child tells you when they need to pee or poop. Hopefully they do, but if they don't, you can still manage. You can offer the potty or public restroom at transition times. Upon arriving at your destination, after finishing your shopping, before heading home, etc.

Yes, it's scary to give up the security of diapers and hand over control. But sometimes, we just need to trust our child.


You may also want to read Our Plan for Transitioning from Elimination Communication to Potty Independence.

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About Heidi Avelino

Heidi is passionate about spreading awareness of elimination communication and natural cloth diapering. She is an environmentalist and strives to live a minimalist and zero-waste lifestyle. Heidi practiced EC with each of her three children. Her eldest son and her daughter have reached potty independence. She is currently practicing EC with and cloth diapering her youngest son.


  1. Danielle on January 4, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Heidi, interesting perspective! I agree that potty training is not ABOUT parents, but it definitely INVOLVES parents. When the goal is “to get my child to tell me when the need to pee”, I agree as well, that’s short sighted thinking. Instead, parents need to teach (steps towards independence), observe then learn (their child’s signals and timing), and use all these tools appropriately. It’s a group effort for sure.

  2. Heidi Avelino on January 4, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Danielle,
    Good point! The parents are actively involved while the child is learning the pieces necessary for independence. But once the child can use the potty on their own it’s important for the parents to not be too involved to the point of causing resistance. I edited the post to try to better reflect that. It’s tricky to put these concepts into words!

  3. Mary Khandaker on February 20, 2021 at 8:31 am

    I love this reframing. My son (almost 3yo) had the most early success when I gave him privacy on the potty and now I really understand why. That being said, he has medical issues/motor skill delays and might not reach this level of independence for quite some time. What is a good way of balancing these needs? He can’t necessarily get to the potty fast enough (crawling instead of walking), he’s still working on pushing pants down (he prefers them all the way off), etc.

  4. Chelsea Schuchler on May 9, 2021 at 8:55 pm

    I am so glad I read this. I have been so resistant to let my 22 mo daughter do all the steps on her own because I don’t want the drops of pee on the floor or the possible poop on the hands (she sucks her thumb) or the pee all over (haven’t even attempted having her empty the potty on her own). It just sounds absolutely awful!!!! But I need to trust her and let her try these things if I want to get to that independence. Baby #2 is coming soon. Prob best to get the early, really frustrating stage out of the way sooner rather than later.