Living in Prague, I’ve often watched as a child younger than my two-year-old is plucked from the stroller to do his business at the edge of a playground or on a street corner. Afterward, I’ve seen the same child, bottle in hand, settling comfortably back into his stroller, opening his mouth wide while his mother spoons in yogurt or homemade soup. Compared to the trend of potty-training after a child’s second birthday in America, babies in the Czech Republic lose their diapers early, even if the standards have been pushed back from previous generations.
For me, the dichotomy between the grown-up act of being toilet trained and the infantile act of sucking on a rubber-nipple bottle is striking. I can’t understand how the same parents who successfully train their 8 and 10 month-old children to use the potty, allow these same children at age 3 or 4 to suck down tea from a bottle, particularly when the majority of Czech children are breastfed beyond a year, until they are well-old enough to drink from a cup.
Visions of tooth decay and years of orthodontia stir up stronger feelings in my heart than having a two-year-old still in diapers, particularly when modern American childrearing theories caution against starting toilet training at any certain age and strongly promote cutting out the bottle by 12-14 months. Although I’m aware that my cultural norms are rooted in my American upbringing, I’ve lived as a mother in Prague longer than I did in America, and I’ve adopted many Czech childrearing habits just because they make good sense.
Initially, I assumed the push to potty train early must be economic-based. Knowing that disposable diapers are a considerable expense, I supposed that a desire to save money prompted parents to start training early. However, early potty training already existed in the Czech culture (as it did back in America) for generations when the washing and maintenance associated with cloth diapers made being diaper-free very desirable.
There is an ongoing forum discussion, “Dítě posazovat na nočník až po 2 letech?” (Sit a child on a potty chair only after 2 years?), currently posted on www.modrykonik.cz. The surprised reaction of most Czech women in response to the predominant American theory of waiting until after two years to begin potty training gives credence to culture as a decisive factor. While many of the mothers acknowledged that potty training is an individual skill that can’t be taught to all children at the same time, more mothers than I would have thought claim to have successfully started potty-training on or before their child’s first birthday, often as early as 6 months for bowel moments.
Although I respect the wisdom of the American Academy of Pediatricians, I couldn’t stop myself the first time around from listening to the “been-there-done-that-wisdom” of my Czech relatives who insisted that my child at age two was way too big to wear diapers. Knowing that only Anna would determine when she’d be ready to trade in her diapers for underwear, I didn’t think that starting early could do any harm as long as we let her reactions determine the course of our training. So, I tried to appease my in-laws by starting Anna Lee’s training on the early side (according to American standards). During the summer she turned 18 months, I left Anna diaper-less, although at the time few of my American friends with children had even begun to think about potty training. Little to my surprise, she had countless accidents.
But I didn’t get upset, and she never seemed stressed, except the day she peed on my Dad during a park visit. For the rest of that day, she kept saying, “And then I peed and I was so annoyed,” words I’m sure, straight from my dad’s mouth. Still it took nearly a year before Anna began to reliably function without diapers during the day. Incidentally, she became accident-free about the time her late-starting American peers finished their 2-week-no-accident-training.
Since I’ve already borne the cultural stigma of not having my first child potty-trained before her second birthday, I’m less inclined to get worked up when babička and prababička voice their criticisms now that Oliver has turned two and is still in diapers. After witnessing the early potty training trend among Czech parents, I even appreciate the fact that babička didn’t begin harping earlier since she knows many children, her own included, who were potty-trained around one year.
My husband stays out of our potty training discussions as much as he can, although he chimes in to periodically to say that once we don’t have to pay for diapers, we can spend the money on something nice for them instead, a point which our in-laws never fail to bring up either.
What surprises me more than the push to lose diapers is the fact that becoming independent in other ways (i.e. eating and drinking) doesn’t seem to line up with early potty training. My mother-in-law and I have had our most heated arguments about letting our children feed themselves. And although my in-laws never directly gave my children a bottle after they had been weaned, they tend to shovel food as fast as possible into their mouths without letting them up for air. They are too impatient to let the children feed themselves, and too concerned (I think) about keeping the children’s appearance neat. When Oliver’s similarly-aged Czech friends visit our house, most of them come bottle in hand, much to Oliver’s amusement and delight. He regards the bottle carefully, exclaiming, “bottle baby” and then tries to “feed” his friends.
Last weekend we celebrated Oliver’s second birthday with a small party. When he opened a gift from our Czech neighbors, I had to hide my smile when I saw she’d given him 5 pairs of big boy underwear. Although her son won’t be 2 for 6 months, she plans to start toilet training him in the summer and thought I’d want to train Oliver as well. On one hand, I’ve been hesitant to repeat the same year-long potty-training that I experienced with Anna, but on the other hand, now that Oliver’s older he also seems genuinely interested in peeing on his sister’s old nočník (potty chair).
At the moment, Anna’s playing the role of big sister very nicely and sits beside Oliver’s potty chair on her stool showing him her picture books, a treat which also makes his potty training sessions take way longer than I’d anticipated. Although I’m hesitant to get too excited, once the warm weather arrives, I will probably ditch the diapers and see what happens. If he follows in his sister’s footsteps, it could be a long process, but I’ve never been the type to acquire new skills quickly, so I can’t complain.
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