The Powerful History of Potty Training

Scientists have long tended to attribute a person's personality to how they were toilet trained—especially during times of political turmoil. 

Before most children can tell which way is up, Alicia Silverstone’s son was potty trained. As the actress-cum-vegan diet pusher explains in her new, and already much derided, parenting book The Kind Mama, young Bear Blu was learning the fine art of sphincter control well before he could speak or walk.

It worked like this: When Bear Blu clenched his body and pouted his face just so, Silverstone—at all times, super in-tune with her baby’s bodily proclivities—knew that he was ready to go, and would promptly find a toilet over which to hold him. Silverstone employed a potty training technique called “elimination communication”—which, she explained in a recent interview, is based on the idea that babies “give you cues but we’re ignoring those cues.” Even the youngest infants can purportedly communicate when they are ready to go; attentive parents need only respond to these “cues” in time. “Elimination Communication” (EC) was made popular in the early 00’s by writer Ingrid Bauer’s book Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene. The book was inspired by a trip Bauer took to India, and her observation of how “mothers in these cultures” approach toilet training.

A rather antithetical strategy was used in East Germany just a quarter-century ago; there, officials used militant, communal potty training schemes as a means of breeding steadfast Soviet citizens. Under the Communist German Democratic Republic, toddlers attended state-run crèches that were equipped with large “potty benches,” on which, several times a day, every child sat down—and remained seated until everyone was done. “This not only aimed at training [children] to use the toilet,” explains Berlin’s DDR Museum, “it was a first step to social education.” Forcing children to defecate on cue ostensibly taught submission to authority. Synchronized bowel movements preceded a synchronized politics.

The very opposite was happening in parts of West Germany, most notably, in the experimental Kommunes of West Berlin. There, New Left activists—eager to test the bounds between private and public spheres—came together for a heady experiment in cooperative living. In the Kommunes, sex was uninhibited and revolutionary, lovers’ quarrels were resolved communally, nuclear families were outmoded, and “coercive toilet-training” was broadly decried.

When the Wall came down, Soviet daycares were closed. But was it too late? Had authoritarian toilet training tactics already wreaked psychological havoc? In 1999, 10 years after reunification, communist potty training made headlines anew—when German criminologist Christian Pfeiffer argued that the practice had rendered East German adults unsuited to democracy. Communal toilet training, Pfeiffer argued, broke a child’s naturally rebellious spirit and “raped” his soul. As a result, an adult exposed to the technique became authoritarian in esprit, and more likely to commit racially motivated crimes.

The personal is political, they say. Little is more personal than bowel relief—and little is more political than how you choose to raise your kid. It should be no great surprise, then, that at various points in modern history, potty training has been imbued with great ideological significance. Even today, the potty proves an enduring battleground on which grand forces—nature and nurture, state and individual—face off. Toilet training continues to be a source of profound anxiety—if not quite in the way that Freud theorized.

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In some instances, potty training assumes a symbolic form. Such is the case right now in Hong Kong, where a potty training-related fracas has escalated into a nasty altercation between the city-state and Mainland China.

Last month, a young Chinese child urinated on a public street in Hong Kong. In much of China, some parents let babies relieve themselves on city streets; but in Hong Kong, they don’t. This particular incident was filmed by a Hong Kong resident who controversially released the footage online. It went viral, and the incident inspired weeks of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in both countries. But it wasn’t the solitary issue of public urination that fed such passions; rather, as The New York Times explained, the incident became a proxy for a larger cultural battle—over whether “Hong Kong, a former British colony [is] now being colonized by mainland China, whose visitors increasingly flood the territory with their money and alien manners.”

At other times, potty training is seen not just as indicative of broader social philosophy, but as an essentially formative episode in its own rite. This line of thinking took off during World War II.

American anthropologists turned to potty training in the early 1940s, while studying what they believed to be the particular aggressiveness of Japanese soldiers. Could this aggression, asked noted scholars like Margaret Mead, be caused by premature toilet training? Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer thought so. He argued (as it turns out, falsely) that Japanese parents potty train their babies earlier than Western parents do—and that this accounted for “the overwhelming brutality and sadism of the Japanese at war.” Gorer’s reasoning was that premature toilet training forced Japanese babies to control their sphincters before important muscular development had taken place. This caused intense rage, which the infants soon repressed. This repression, in turn, gave rise to severe and compulsive personalities.

Some of this psychoanalysis was done in the service of the American war effort. In the early 40’s, Geoffrey Gorer and some of his like-minded colleagues were hired as analysts by the U.S. Office of War Information’s Foreign Morale Analysis Division. There, they attempted to build basic personality profiles of foreign nation-states. (In a related project, Gorer linked infant swaddling in Russia to manic-depressive personality disorders.) Gorer’s research on Japan would expand, but he always insisted: “Early and severe toilet training is the most important single influence in the formation of the adult Japanese character.”

We can, in part, blame Sigmund Freud for this idea (now broadly discredited) that early infant training shapes adult personality in predictable and immutable ways. And that babyhood “trauma” (in the form, say of, strenuous toilet training) gives rise to mental illness in adulthood. Freud placed great stock in potty training, a critical event in what he called the “anal phase” of childhood.  If a babe is toilet trained too early or too harshly, Freud warned, then he will be frozen in the anal stage and will become a straight-laced and up-tight (what we now call “anal retentive”) man. Some of the anthropologists who served the U.S. government were deeply inspired by Freud and eager to apply his theory.

Philosophers swallowed the same pill. Soon after the Holocaust, Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno hypothesized that excessively disciplined children developed character traits like robotic obedience, easy submission to authority, and susceptibility to anti-Semitism. Some parenting guides later extrapolated from this, directly linking punitive toilet training with Adorno’s “authoritarian personality.”

The unstated corollary, of course, is that less-disciplined parenting fosters independent, tolerant, democracy-minded people. All of a sudden, in the 1950s, writes cultural historian Nicholas Sammond, “the need to understand and regulate child-rearing was not simply a matter of faddishness or marketing; it concerned the course of history.” In the United States, the notion that childrearing should be studied and regulated gained ground.

As the century wore on, researchers challenged the idea that events like toilet training have much impact on whether one becomes serene or uptight, broad-minded or hateful. Partly as a result of this theoretical shift, potty training became a more permissive affair. Enter the still popular “readiness approach,” which holds that infants should be “ready” for the potty before parents introduce it. In 1946, celebrity pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock urged parents to “leave bowel training almost entirely up to your baby…. [who] will probably take himself to the toilet before he is two years old.”

The rise of the mass-produced and inexpensive disposable diaper in the 1970s hurried along this liberal shift. Before long, the diaper company Pampers was urging parents to relax a bit—and to delay potty training into toddlerhood. In 2007, Pampers introduced a diaper for children who weigh more than 41 pounds: the typical weight of an American five-year-old.

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Today, lax potty training—or no potty training at all—is the trend du jour. But depending on your view of things, what Alicia Silverstone and fellow “elimination communication” enthusiasts are advocating is either a throw back or a next step in this trajectory. Advocates laud EC as the “natural” choice. “Throughout most of human existence, parents have cared for their babies hygienically without relying on diapers,” writes Ingrid Bauer in Diaper Free! “In many cultures around the world, mothers still know how to understand and respond to their infant’s elimination needs to keep them clean and content.” In fact, EC borrows much from anthropologist Margaret Mead’s research in the 30’s, which extolled the virtues of the “primitive” mother.

In After Theory, literary theorist Terry Eagleton observes that appeals to morality and psychology “have often enough been a way of avoiding political argument. Protesters don’t have a point, they just have over-indulgent parents. Women who object to cruise missiles are simply consumed by penis-envy. Anarchists are the effect of poor potty training.” Indeed, the subtext of the ceaseless potty training debate remains decidedly political. As blogger Maria Guido writes on Mommyish, “The idea is that your child was born ready to potty train and it’s your lazy Western reliance on environment-destroying disposable diapers that is getting in the way of your six-month-old’s natural inclination to use the actual toilet.” That sounds like bad politics, not just bad parenting.