At my four-year-old daughter’s ballet school, half a dozen tiny ballerinas have squeezed into a two-stall bathroom for a pee break. I step in to untwist a tutu or help a little one reach the sink.
“Even if you don’t do a poo, you still have to wash your hands,” says one ballerina to another. “That’s what my bubbe says.”
“Emma didn’t flush,” tattles another. Eavesdropping as the girls trade washroom wisdom reminds me how much there is to learn, even after kids are done with diapers. They know when they have to go and can get to the bathroom without accidents, but there are still inevitable bathroom blunders: from clogged toilets and overflowing sinks to pee-stained walls and floors. And just as with potty training, teaching children proper bathroom etiquette requires patience and repetition.
“Did you wipe?” I ask my daughter every time she comes back from the washroom. “Front to back?” Of course, I still occasionally find stains in her undies — the clean wipe is a hard thing to master and kids are always in a hurry — but I know she’s doing her best.
“When they come home with messy underpants or complain about an itchy bottom, it’s an opportunity to remind them about wiping properly,” says Fiona Smith, a Toronto Montessori teacher. “Show them a clean piece of toilet paper — that’s what they should be looking for.”
At Smith’s school, it’s a requirement that children are potty trained, but she says teachers are usually prepared to give guidance, and they expect a few accidents, particularly at the start of the school year. Her advice to parents preparing a child for the independence of preschool is to role model with them. For the first little while, accompany your child to the bathroom every time she needs to go and talk her through the process, she says. Make sure she’s not using too much toilet paper, and that she can reach the sink faucet and soap. Show her how to control the water temperature. After a few weeks of supervised visits, let the child use the washroom solo. Then, Smith says, “if she calls you in to wipe her bottom, instead of just doing it for her, say, ‘Remember what I’ve been showing you?’ and talk her through the steps. It’s the best way for a child to really learn.”
As parents, it’s hard to resist the urge to jump in and take control. It’s been almost two years since my daughter ditched diapers, but I still appear with wet wipes if she calls me into the bathroom.
According to Toronto paediatrician Tamar Flanders, a three-year-old could get the hang of potty protocol straight away, while some six-year-olds still need support. “You know your own child and what she’s capable of,” she says. “I can’t give you an age as to when a child should be able to wipe herself properly. It really depends on the individual.”
Flanders says parents should emphasize proper hand-washing to avoid the spread of germs. Wiping front to back can prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs), which she says are quite common among preschool-aged girls. “Sometimes UTIs just happen and keep recurring, and we don’t know why. But wiping front to back, and not holding in a pee, definitely decreases the risk.”
Back at the ballet school, the ballerinas have pirouetted back to class. I check the bathroom for stragglers and sure enough, I find one lone dancer perched on the edge of her toilet seat.
“I poo better in privacy,” she tells me, kicking the stall door shut with her little pink slipper.
“Fair enough,” I respond. “I’ll be outside if you need anything.”
A version of this article appeared in our August 2013 issue with the headline “All by myself,” pp. 58.