Homeschool Essentials

Whether unschooled or highly structured, religious or secular, all homeschools encounter the same challenges. All successful homeschools exhibit the same essential qualities. This weblog will help you understand and apply those qualities, minimize frustration, and enjoy more success sooner.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Essential Skill #3

We've already looked at two of the most important skills children ever learn, which they learn at home, before the age of five, under the tutelage of amateurs. Walking, a complex psycho-motor skill, and talking, an amazing cognitive achievement.

Today I will take up the third essential skill, and the only one which often causes difficulty: toilet training.

Mention the words "toilet training," and many a young mother's blood begins to run cold. Compared to either walking or talking, this is a simpler skill. Note that I did not say "simple," only that it is less difficult than the other two. Once the child becomes fully aware of the process, and his/her part in it, it should be a relatively easy habit to establish. But often it is not.

Why should this be?

A number of factors go into this messy equation. We understand those that motivate mothers better than the ones that motivate children, but that doesn't mean children are a total mystery on this issue. On the contrary, since they are young and unsophisticated, their motivations tend to be simple and direct. By contrast, parents are more adept at self-deception and rationalization, and often don't realize what's going on in their own heads.

Perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate this is with a true story. After speaking to a group of parents on the topic of these three essential skills, a young mother came to discuss her situation privately. "My three-year-old son," she said, "is resisting so strongly that he's retaining his feces. The doctor is considering giving him drugs." Hoping to deal with this one quickly, I suggested she feed him a diet of fruit for a few days. It wouldn't train him, of course, but it should get things moving. "Oh," she replied, "he doesn't like fruit."

For a host of reasons, this tends to be the first of these skills where we observe a contest of wills. Not that children and parents don't engage in many other contests of wills. It's just that in toilet training, children can assert their wills in a way that their parents cannot ignore.

Many children win the contest of wills when it comes to other obnoxious behaviors. The standards of civil behavior have deteriorated to the point where bratty children seldom elicit notice in society. Parents ignore their failure to get their children to behave in civilized ways, and take extreme umbrage should anyone else take notice.

"My children just scream," one highly offended (and highly incompetent) mother said to me. "It's their nature. It's just the way they are." Yes, (I could have added but did not) it's also their nature to demand their own way all the time, to ignore or subordinate the needs and desires of others, and to rant and rave when anyone opposes their will. All children scream and otherwise throw tantrums when thwarted. That's what parents are for, to help children learn to behave better. But that's for another day.

The point is that this mother, like many parents, had rationalized her children's misbehaviors away. Since it was "their nature," she could not be expected to do anything about it. And so it often is with a multitude of lesser offenses. It's "their nature" to make a mess and let others clean it up, too, and it comes to the child's urine and feces, only the most dysfunctional can still ignore them. So the lazy, rationalizing parent comes to this early day of reckoning. And makes a worse mess, if that's possible.

Even relatively competent parents can become exasperated by a child's reluctance to toilet-train. Even a child who has learned to comply with reasonable results will often have difficulty here.

The reason is quite simple. At first, neither the parent nor the child can control the child's bodily functions. At some point, the balance tilts, and the child can--and does-- control them, but not necessarily to the convenience of the parent. And that's where it all hits the fan.

There's too much here for one day's blog, so I'll continue it tomorrow. Then we'll look at this classic battle of wills, and its lessons for academic and other learning later on. You may be surprised by the solution.


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