The Secrets We Keep: What Parents Don’t Tell Other Parents

Parenting is hard enough.  We don’t need to be keeping secrets from one another.  But we do.

If you spend any time in parenting groups–online or in real life–you know that parents are worried.  And overwhelmed.  And wanting to know what is normal and whether we are “doing it right.”  These anxieties may be at an all time high.  So it seems to me that we would all do one another a big favor if we stopped keeping secrets.

You know, it would all be okay if we weren’t all comparing our children to everyone else’s.

“Her kids slept through the night at 4 months!

What is wrong with my kid?!?”

“Their son is so polite, and mine is still throwing Cheerios at three years old!”

“They seem so put together, and I always feel like my life is complete chaos!  How in the world do they do that?”

We do compare.  And when we do, the secrets we keep from one another become all the more pernicious.   So it’s time to come clean.

But before we do, let me just pass along the sage piece of advice that I offer to each and every parent who makes comparisons:

Stop.  Don’t.  Don’t do that.

And most importantly:  It’s An Illusion.

Every child has a different temperament.  Some kids are just very easygoing.  They’re born that way.  Others aren’t. Some parents are just very easygoing by temperament, and things don’t bother them.  They were born that way, too.  Some aren’t.  Some kids are behaving because they are frightened.  Is that what you’re after?  Some children have genuinely given up after being ignored–they look like easy children, but they’ve turned inward. Some kids just sleep easily.  It happens.  Those people who say that their “parenting philosophy” is responsible for their amazing outcomes might be right.  And they might be wrong.  A sample size of one or two isn’t much to go on.  Things might have gone well anyway–there’s no control group.  All (yes, all) families–especially those that look perfect–have had their nightmare days and hours too–you just weren’t there to see them.  And maybe they don’t admit that they have them.  But they do.

greengrassYou know, overused adages don’t come out of nowhere.  The grass is always greener.

It’s an illusion.  Remind yourself.  Comparisons are like jumping into a rabbit hole…and you won’t wind up in Wonderland–it will just be “down down down.”  It’s a trap.  It’s a dead end.  It’s a bad idea.  Stay out of it.

The solution is to talk about it.

Yeah. I’m outing you.

Here are the most pervasive secrets, in my experience:

Toilet Training

There are two great secrets–or lies, if you will–that we tell about potty training.

If you’re a parent of a child under four, my guess is that you think that toilet training is something you do.  And when I say “you do”, I mean something YOU do.  The parents.  It’s not.  It’s something your child does.  When they’re good and ready, both physically and emotionally.  You can try, if you want, but be aware that coaxing pee and poop from someone else’s body is something you literally have ZERO control over. It is completely and utterly under their control (and they know it.)  You can bribe, you can cajole, you can try to talk them into it, you can complain, you can shame, you can yell, you can beg, you can plead, you can give stickers or M&M’s, you can have intellectual conversations about how “it’s time.”  If they’re not ready–or more to the point, if they’re not inclined–you’re wasting your time.  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times:  “Potty training has been going fine, and today, he just squatted and pooped on the rug in his bedroom!  What has gotten into him?”  You know what’s gotten into him?  He is completely in charge of when and how and where the poop comes out of his body.  Maybe you thought you were for a minute there.  He’s correcting you.  You know–just so you know.  Kids are helpful like that.

Potty “training” is not a thing.  Children aren’t dogs.  They don’t need “training.”  Toilet “learning” is a thing.  They learn it.  We set the stage, sure. We serve as models.  We get a potty chair and we let them know, oh so casually, that it’s there and they can use it if they want.  But learning is something that goes on in our children’s brains.  We are not in charge of it.  Ever.  We think we are.  But it’s an illusion.  Yes.  Really.

The other big secret or lie that we tell about potty training is that that all kids are in underwear by the time they are two or three, and that’s that.  And by “that’s that” I mean that when they start to wear underwear, you throw the diapers out, because they’re done.  24 hours a day.  Sure, a few accidents here and there, but basically, it’s something you just do and they’re done.   Not true.

Now before I get angry emails or comments from those of you for whom it did work like this–sure, it works like this for some people.  They are few and far between.  Really.  If it happened like this for you, that’s great.  Maybe you used one of those systems where you potty trained in a weekend.  I see those strategies pitched all the time.  That’s great, I’m glad it worked for you.   I believe that it worked for you.  I also believe it’s going to come back and bite you at some point in the future–mostly because I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times–but that’s a different conversation for a different post.  But no–really–If you did it and it’s done and your child is completely potty trained, including through the night at 2 1/2 and that’s working well for you and your family and you don’t run into any trouble later, more power to you.  And I mean that with all sincerity.  You’re really lucky.  I also know that I’m going to get comments about Elimination Communication, and how children were “trained” or going on the potty at 6 months or 9 months or 14 months.  That, too, is another conversation for another post and another time–for now, suffice it to say that, in my view (which can be different than yours, disagreement is not fatal), parents learning to read babies’ and toddlers’ cues and taking them to the potty is a process by which we as parents are being trained.  Again, if it works for you and you think it’s a good idea, I’m not going to say that you’re not my friend and you can’t come to my birthday party.  It’s just a different conversation about what, to me, is a different topic.

To the rest of you, here’s the real deal:

There are two kinds of readiness that children have to have in order to be fully out of diapers.  The first is physical readiness–an awareness of the sensation of needing to go before it is urgent and the muscle control to voluntarily control both the urethral and sphincter muscles.  The second, which is arguably much more important, is emotional readiness–the ability to delay gratification and control impulse in order to interrupt play when they need to go to the bathroom, the willingness to “let go” of pee and poop (as disgusting as we might think it is, it is felt as a significant loss by many young children, like losing part of their body), and the maturity to not get into power struggles with parents, using peeing and pooping as a stubborn statement of autonomy.   Both of these things need to be in place for children to fully make the transition from diapers to underwear.  If they don’t have both of these things, they’re not ready.

But that’s not even the biggest secret.  The biggest secret is that the kids that you think are fully potty trained….aren’t.  No one will admit this.  Or they are fully potty trained, but it doesn’t mean what you think it does.  A large percentage of children can let go of pee but not poop, so they either hold on to poop (not a good idea, on any account) or they still poop in a diaper, even when you see them out and about in underwear (like when you saw that tiny kid at the park and you saw that they were wearing underwear even though they’re so much smaller than your kid and you started to sweat wondering how those parents did it and why your kid hasn’t.)  There’s so much you don’t know about that kid at the park.  Letting go of bowel movements is a big deal for many kids.  Lots of kids have an easier time doing that into a diaper.  So those kids down the street that were potty trained at 2 1/2?  They’re still pooping in a diaper.  And there’s nothing the matter with that.  It’s a great solution–the perfect compromise until they are fully ready.  The thing is, no one tells you that.  So you start to work on using the potty with your child and he pees just fine but he won’t poop in the toilet and you are overcome with anxiety because all the other kids achieved both at the same time, and it’s just your kid who has something wrong and can’t do it.  No.  It isn’t just your kid. The other kids did that too.

You know how else they aren’t potty trained?  Kids–lots of kids–a huge percentage of kids–still need a diaper or a pull up at night, because they can’t stay dry through a whole night of sleep.  And I’m not just talking about at three of four.  Many (and i mean many) kids still need a nighttime diaper (or the equivalent) at six or seven.  And no one tells you that.  So you feel like your kid has a medical problem, or a developmental delay, or is just horrendously stubborn, or is drinking too much liquid, or they’re doing it for attention in the night.  No.  They don’t, they aren’t.  It’s really very typical.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  At all.  But we keep that a secret.  We leave parents of younger children in the dark.  I have no idea why we do that, but we do.

Here’s the real scoop (on poop).  If we stay out of it completely (which I cannot recommend highly enough), most children come to use the toilet fully independently sometime between three and four, and sometimes a bit after four.  Not many come to it fully independently before three, but some do.  And when they do, it’s over.  No “accidents.” It’s the truth.  So I’m telling you.

Sleep

Oh, yeah. Sleep is another big one.

Parents don’t tell the truth about sleep.  Oh, we tell the truth about the nightmares of sleep, the children who don’t sleep, our exhaustion, our struggles with or affection for “sleep training.”  We definitely bond over the saga of sleep.  Misery loves company. And we definitely tell the truth when our kids are perfect little sleep angels who sleep like champs from day one.  If you’re lucky, you’re lucky.  But we don’t tell the truth about a lot of things about sleep.

No one–and I mean no one (okay, maybe one person, maybe you can introduce yourself if this is you)–admits that their ten year old wants to (and does) sleep with them.  And yet it’s happening (no judgment here, I think it’s fine.)  We encourage one another to let young children sleep with us, and we constantly assure one another (I’ve read it in a thousand places if I’ve read it once) that when they’re two or three or four, they’ll “want their own space” and will naturally and easily transition to their own bed in their own room.  Not always.  In fact, not a lot of the time.  But we don’t talk about that because…well, because everyone says they’ll do it on their own when they’re three or four and our kids didn’t, and so that must say something bad about our kids or our parenting, because clearly it happens that way for everyone else and because we’re afraid to scare the parents with little ones by telling them that their kids might not want to leave their beds (for good reason…do YOU like to sleep alone?) and we’re trying to be helpful.  We don’t talk about it because we are sure to have someone say to us “yeah, it’s okay when they’re little, but your kids still sleeping with you at this age is really outside the range of normal and kind of disturbing, have you thought about taking them to a therapist?” Or if they don’t say it, they think it, and we can still feel that, can’t we, and then we feel like freaks.

We don’t need no stinkin’ mommy wars on the internet.  We do it to ourselves.

Stop.

You’re not a freak.  Your child is not a freak.

Here’s the truth.  Some kids sleep independently.  Some kids sleep with their parents.  Some kids sleep with their parents for a short time.  Some kids sleep with their parents for a long time.  Some parents love it that their kids sleep with them.  Some parents don’t like it at all.  Some people use family beds on purpose (a whole lot of the world.)  Some people never intended to sleep with their kids, but they wind up doing it to avoid psychosis from sleep deprivation (raising my hand).  Avoiding psychosis is a damn good parenting decision, by the way.  Some people sleep train.  Some of the people who sleep train will tell you that if you just let them cry, it will stop after a few nights–and some people who try that do it for months and it never stops. Some people are appalled by sleep training and think that it means only one thing (which it doesn’t) and that people who do it are heartless.  Some children’s sleep has little to nothing to do with the things we do to try to control it.  Some children need a lot of support to get enough sleep.  Yes, they’ll sleep until noon when they’re teenagers (though by then, you won’t be able to sleep in anymore, tough luck for you.)

The Other Stuff

Oh yeah. The other stuff.  Everyone loses their patience.  Most (if not all) of us yell sometimes.  No one does that whatever-the-philosophy-is perfectly.  No children happily birds cinderellaskip around doing chores without being reminded (and none of them have cartoon birds helping them either).  No one thinks of the clever playful solution just at the right moment all the time.  All of us hear our parents’ words coming out of our mouths at one time or another.  All of our kids hit, or bite, or spit, or kick at some point.  Those people who say their kids are so easy to be with haven’t hit a problem spot yet–they will.  All of our kids say awkward things in even more awkward circumstances.  We all feel like the entire world is staring at us and judging us when our kid is having a tantrum in the grocery store.  And yes, some of us buy them a candy bar to get them to be quiet.  And we’re sorry later.  But we do it.  And we’re sure that everyone is staring at us even more and judging us even more when we do that.  And maybe they are.  Our obligations are not to strangers.  Our obligations are to our children.  And to ourselves.  To do our best and to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes.

So tell someone.  Without shame.

Yeah, my 5th grader sleeps with me.  It’s all good, we’re fine with it.

Oh, yeah, my kid was in pull-ups until 2nd grade. It was no big deal. (and tell them what brand was really good, while you’re at it.)

I remember that.  I remember when my daughter bit all those kids at day care, and they all went home with marks on their arms. I thought she was going to grow up to be a sociopath.

Yeah, I screamed until my face was purple and I wished I’d never had kids.  And I said it, too.

You are not alone.  In anything.  I promise.

Tell the truth.  Wherever you can.  Whenever you can.  We need one another.

Too many of us feel like we’re the only ones.  Way too many.  I meet them every day.

People are going to judge you.  Let ’em.  Remember, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Drop the shame.  All families are different.  All children are different.  If you genuinely need help and support to do a better job–by your own assessment–get it.  There’s no shame in getting support.

Now you know.  Proceed as usual.  And spread the word.  We’re a clan, we parents.  This isn’t a competition.  There’s no need for hazing rituals (let’s leave that to Ph.D. programs).

Let’s give all those up-and-comers a break, shall we?  Let’s tell them the truth.

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4 thoughts on “The Secrets We Keep: What Parents Don’t Tell Other Parents

  1. Sorry but i feel uncomfortable with this article -you tell us to tell the truth and not judge each other as parents, yet you say to someone like me who potty-trained my daughter in a weekend ( yes ‘trained’, or taught, but NOT like a dog as you say, rather like we teach our children to do so many things): “it’s going to come back and bite you at some point in the future”. This comment is cryptic and aggressive and totally unjustified. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the day, she was 2 years and 4 months, she’s been totally dry through the night since a few weeks later, and i can count on one hand the number of accidents we’ve had in the six months since that day, she has never looked back and is totally well-adjusted and happy. She’s also been sleeping through the night since 4 months old. These two facts are the result of other parents sharing THEIR secrets with us – my best friend gave me the book “Happiest baby on the block” for sleep advice and my mum gave me “Potty training in less than a day” – both worked perfectly, and in a hugely positive way for everyone involved. Obviously they wont work for everyone!!! But we all need advice, things to try. HOWEVER THE IRONY is that i never tell anyone (unless they ask) that she slept through at 4 months and potty-trained in a weekend at 28 months – because of judgemental opinions, such as those in the article above. Please please please, if you want to stop parents judging each other, then you need to stop!! (Obviously aside from parenting appoaches that are actually abusive or harmful. ) Wishing you and everyone reading this ALL THE BEST in sleeping and pottying – it’s not easy, it’s VERY difficult , but we all need each other’s advice and help and support, not more judgement and disapproval. Xxxxx

    • I also said: “If you did it and it’s done and your child is completely potty trained, including through the night at 2 1/2 and that’s working well for you and your family and you don’t run into any trouble later, more power to you. And I mean that with all sincerity. You’re really lucky.”

      I respect that parents do things differently. My experience with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of children, my research, and my reading of the growing number of warning articles by esteemed pediatric urologists and gastroenterologists that highlight the current epidemic of elimination disorders and illnesses related (by their description, not mine) to early potty training have led me to this conclusion. As with anything, there will be people that will never have any negative outcomes, either physical or behavioral. My own experiences is that those are the minority–and of course, I can only speak to my own professional experience. I agree that “we all need advice and things to try” – like anyone, I cannot in good conscience give advice or propose things to try that are not in line with my principles.

      I understand how it may seem like irony. I do not pretend, in any way, that this blog does not have a particular philosophical orientation or bias. We all have our biases, and I own mine. This blog absolutely has a strong bias toward respectful, democratic, non-punitive, conscious child-led caregiving. It’s true that the Happiest Baby on the Block is valued by many people. I have read it, and it does not represent my beliefs about infants. Despite how it appears, I don’t judge anyone (with the obvious exception of abuse, as you mention). I simply speak from my experience, both as a parent and as a child development professional working with young children and families for more than three decades. If these books work for you, I think that’s fine for you. As they conflict with what I believe is best for young children, it would be lacking in professional and personal integrity for me to agree that they’re good resources…even if others feel that they are.

      I understand and accept that my perspective is not the most common or the most mainstream, and I stand by my bias, acknowledging that I do come at my own writing from a particular set of beliefs.

      In the end, I speak for myself, not for anyone else.

  2. I love this article! Yeah, some of the books, strategies, and training programs work for some families. That’s great if they do. I’m sure it is partly due to their hard work as parents, too. However, I think your point is so important. We are almost all doing the best we can with the child and situation we have. Sometimes, the popular strategies don’t work, and there’s nothing wrong with you as a parent or your kid if they don’t. In fact, it’s pretty normal if your kid doesn’t do everything you train them to do, when you train them to do it. To be honest, I’m kind of glad my kid doesn’t conform (albeit frustrating at times). It means that he’s one of a kind! …Thanks so much for a great, compassionate article!

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