Sunday, January 10, 2010

Potty Training Peasant-style

Note: My computer is still acting up and unable to post pictures. I should get my new computer on 1/25, and I will then post a photo collage with the pictures I have wanted to include with these posts.
In previous posts I described a few of the differences between my American concepts about child-raising and my Chinese peasant in-law’s practices. One of the biggest differences that I noticed was in the matter of potty training. In America, it often seems to be a big horrendous ordeal for both mother and child. When I was in Taipei, some families seemed to have an easier time of it, and others had their struggles. The Liu family was expert at it.

I think their success came from a number of different outlooks on life. First of all, they are more relationship oriented, and they seemed to expect that the babies were communicating with them by body language long before they could talk. They responded with words and actions to meet the babies’ expressed needs. Second, bodily functions are normal and natural to them. (One American stereotype is that Chinese manners insist the guests belch at the end of a banquet. I don’t think that is the case, so much as any kind of passing gas is considered natural and is not remarked upon. After you stuff yourself at a twenty-course feast, the natural response is to belch, so they do, very loudly.) Because bodily functions are normal, there is much less fuss about potty training and the inevitable mistakes children make on their way to being trained. Third, most rural families have a higher tolerance for dirt. Houses frequently have tiled floors. There are drains in the middle of the kitchen and bathroom floors, and it is much easier to deal with any kind of mess. And finally, there is a slower rhythm of time for grandparents at home with the grandchildren. No one is rushing off to work; no one is worried about being late for anything. So the children are freer to live and learn.

Having said all that, the hot, humid weather in Taiwan gave most babies horrific heat and diaper rashes during the summer months from mid-March to mid-November. The houses were not heated, so cold, wet diapers in the winter created other problems. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, air conditioning was not as prevalent as it is now, and the weather was a huge impetus for early potty training. Most families of my acquaintance began potty training as soon as the babies could sit up around the age of four months. My friends in Taipei who had to get to work or rush off to scheduled appointments would try to get their children on a schedule and would put them on little potty seats at the door of the kitchen either while the mother was making breakfast or while she was making dinner. Because a schedule was involved, this method of potty training was not much happier for either parent or child than the American version.

My mother-in-law was home with the grandkids all day, and they were her career. She looked for body language to determine if they needed to go. Babies usually cross their eyes or grimace or do something when their intestines start moving. If Ma and the babies were at home, she would immediately grab the baby making the face, whip off her shorts and hold her firmly in her arms over the toilet while making encouraging noises. When the girl had finished, she was praised for going in the toilet like a big girl, and the diaper and shorts were put back on. If they were on a walk, of course, nothing would be said at this point in the process. Soon the girls would fuss briefly when they felt an urge, and they were whisked off to be held over the toilet.

At about six months, they were big enough to sit on potty seats, and sometimes I would come downstairs to find Ma and the twins in the bathroom. Ma would be perched on the edge of the bathtub, and the twins would be facing her in a row on their potty seats. They would all be talking and singing and laughing. Potty time was fun. At this point, Ma was able to catch things about 80% of the time. September and October are particularly hot in Taiwan, and the girls did not need to wear diapers when they were at home. If they made a mess, it was easy to wash the tile floor, and they were told that they would do better next time. The girls sometimes got more upset than their grandmother.

By the time they were walking, things got a bit more difficult because the girls would not always want to stop their playing to go in to the bathroom. But their views were respected. The Lius had no problem spreading out newspaper on the living room floor and holding the child right beside her toys or where she could continue watching TV, so that her bodily needs and her psychological needs could be taken care of. I used to joke that they were paper training my kids like puppies, but I think it was really a good way to handle it. The children were not allowed to soil their pants, but there was a compromise that kept them near their projects. They learned a little about negotiation and holding their own in a relationship. And the newspaper was very easy to clean up. In any event, the twins were pretty much potty (or paper) trained before the age of two without any huge scenes or crying or fuss or muss. To me it was an amazing feat after all the scare stories I had heard from my American friends and relatives.


murat11 said...

Delightful story; of course, it does not surprise me that, as with so many other things, the Lius had it going on, when it came to potty training. Though a generally lighthearted post, you make some fine cultural points, too, about the way in which many aspects of contemporary life reinforce the difficulties and anxieties felt by families in this regard. I love the image of Ma on the edge of the tub regaling the girls with the morning entertainment.

Teresa said...

That was a picture we never took, as there are taboos about what is appropriate to leave for posterity, but it was a heart-warming sight. I think that Ma would probably be called a "baby whisperer" in America today!

Barrie said...

That is so incredibly different. I read a book called TOILET TRAINING IN A DAY before I started training my first child. Very, very different perspective. Ah...your new computer is almost here!

Travis Erwin said...

Great story. I bet your are antsy for that new computer.

Teresa said...

Hi Travis and Barrie, Thanks for stopping by. I am counting the days till I get my new computer, which will be "Passion Purple" with lots of bells and whistles.

Glad you liked the story. I went back and forth about posting this one, but the attitudes were so different, I thought American readers would enjoy it.

Cloudia said...

Basic human wisdom!

Aloha, Friend!

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Nishant said...

I love the image of Ma on the edge of the tub regaling the girls with the morning entertainment.

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