How young children learn to protect themselves

Every day brings new reports of adults in some position of responsibility who take advantage of the trust that children place in them.

All of us have to worry about our children’s safety, and it’s easy to wonder what we should be doing to safeguard them from predators.

Parents of school-age children can talk about the importance of speaking up whenever anything feels uncomfortable. Parents of adolescents can talk even more directly with them about sexual assualt.

However, dealing with the issue of self-protection with preschool children is very different.

We want to caution parents against scaring or confusing very young children with lectures about not speaking to strangers, or protecting themselves against improper advances from anyone other than Mommy, Daddy or grandparents.

These messages can be utterly confusing to little children. It can be scary and upsetting, and can cause them to overreact in many ways.

For instance, they can become afraid of going to sleep, of the dark, of speaking to anyone. They can become overly excited and engage in mutual sexual play; or pretend to go looking for imaginary molesters, which shows that they are acting out what they are trying to understand.

Needing to protect oneself is a big responsibility that young children cannot possibly take on by themselves. We must be with them at all times, or place them in the care of family members or someone who has been checked out thoroughly and found to be completely trustworthy.

But there are things parents can do to help young children resist the advances of people who want to take advantage of them – though children need a long time to achieve mastery of the care and protection of their bodies.

They learn these skills by observing the things we parents do every day.

For example, they observe how we behave with strangers, who we talk to and who we avoid.

A young child goes from being totally cared for by his parents to wanting to do things for himself: feeding, washing, toileting, and dressing himself. And parents welcome this evidence that he is growing up and wants privacy and control over his own body.

Here is what Barbara Streeter, Education Director of the Hanna Perkins School, says about helping children protect themselves:

“What protects a child best is a sense of self-worth, an ability to know when he is being treated disrespectfully, and a sense that he has the right and ability to defend himself.”

To help a child develop those attributes and abilities, Streeter offers the following thoughts:

  • Always treat the child with respect, physically and emotionally.
  • Listen to and observe what he likes/dislikes and respond accordingly.
  • Protect her from intrusions of other adults – such as unwanted kisses, hugs, tickles, jokes, teases, insensitive doctors, salesmen, etc.
  • Support a child’s “no” to others when spoken or communicated non-verbally.
  • Assist a child in finding ways to defend himself when playmates and siblings are unkind in any way.
  • Show respect for – and support – a child’s need for privacy and control over what gets done to his body (eating, toileting, dressing, administering medications, etc.).
  • Avoid activities that make a child feel helpless (for example, adults overpowering a child by showing off their physical strength or engaging in excessive tickling).
  • Assist children in developing respect for “personal space”.
  • Carefully assess any person a child is being left with, and seriously consider any doubts you or the child might have.
  • Listen to what children have to say; let them know that we don’t automatically assume people in authority are right and they are wrong.

When children learn how to protect themselves, it’s not through our lectures or admonitions, but by observing the way their parents respect them and take care of them.

It’s a big job, but no one ever said being a parent was easy. We salute you and wish you well in doing that big job.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Taking time to learn from a student with autism

My student Sammy (not his real name) began looking up briefly from his desk in the classroom. At first these movements appeared to serve the purpose of relieving neck strain or perhaps eye strain from looking down at his table work. But I soon realized that he was catching quick looks at the clock on the wall.

I pointed to the clock and asked him, “Clock?” which prompted a longer gaze at the classroom fixture. I asked again, “Do you see the clock?” He replied “Yes” and then went back to his work.

While he worked, I fetched our teaching clock from the classroom cupboard and brought it to Sammy’s desk. It was a large clock with visible gears, and hands that move in relation with each other. He began experimenting with the clock, then handing it to me and asking me to make it display certain times. “Nine o’clock?” “Twelve o’clock?” “Five o’clock?” He became more and more intrigued with the idea that I could make it show any time he wanted, so I handed the controls over to him.

After a short time, Sammy looked up, asking “Math? Math?” I assumed he was ready to move on to the addition work we had been doing, but I was wrong. He got up from his chair and sought out a specific set of 12 blocks, featuring animals of sequential heights. A tiny ladybug is shown on the block labeled as 1, a tall giraffe is on the block labeled as 12, and other animals are shown in their relative heights on each of the blocks in between. We have used these blocks in the past to work on sequencing numbers, heights and lengths, but that is not what Sammy had in mind.

He began placing the blocks on the table in a manner that looked like a clock face, but he got discouraged after the sixth block. “Circle? Circle?” He put paper and a marker on the table in front of me and asked again, “Circle?”

I understood where this was going; I drew a large circle and handed it to Sammy with the marker. He wrote each of the clock-face numbers around the circle and then positioned the twelve animal blocks accordingly.

As he did this, Sammy sang and hummed quietly to himself. So I took the activity in a different direction by singing 12 consecutive tones of a major scale while bouncing my finger up the gradated blocks. He followed my lead and we played this way for several minutes.

Sammy then jumped up from his seat, saying “Ruler? Ruler?” He found the ruler and bounced his finger up and down the 12 inches, singing tones of a major scale. Watching this, I challenged myself to come up with a related activity to introduce the next day. I decided to bring in a calendar so we could connect the 12 inches with the 12 months of the year. The experience made me realize that several things in our lives come in sets of 12, or dozens, such as eggs, roses, and doughnuts.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

Other than the fact that Sammy was born in 2012, his mother and I are not certain what significance the number 12 has to Sammy. It remains a mystery, but by being patient, curious and genuinely fond of Sammy, I was able to experience an alternative perspective, and the two of us were able to enjoy learning together.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Classroom for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.


A collection of holiday wisdom: All the Grandmothers’ seasonal writings in one location

The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but all the excitement and traditions of the season can create stress in young children that grownups, in their own enthusiasm, can easily overlook.

Here is a collection of previously published articles by the Hanna Perkins Grandmothers that may help you see the holidays as they really look through a child’s eyes – so you can create the best kind of memories for the young people in your life.

  • The Santa Question This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually. The Tooth Fairy No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a ... Read more
  • Keeping holidays focused on the children It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up. The ... Read more
  • Handling holiday disappointments Grumpy Ballerina“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams over the PA system in Walmart – and as we pile gifts in our shopping cart we halfway believe it. The kid riding in the cart, eyeing the decorated artificial trees and ... Read more
  • The spirit of giving: How children’s gifts are recieved It was Christmas morning. As the family sat around the little tree, under which was a modest pile of wrapped gifts, Nina could not contain herself. She ran to the tree, pulled her gifts away from the others and distributed them; one for ... Read more
  • How little ones learn to love giving We Grandmothers are certainly aware that today’s families live in times of “Hurry Up” – that mothers and fathers both work and have to deal with malls filled with gifts of every shape and color. We recognize time is a precious commodity, so ... Read more
  • Excitement vs. Fun In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun. A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is ... Read more
  • A holiday wish: Simple delight in your children What quality would we Grandmothers most ardently wish for you parents of young children in this final, bustling season of the year? Well OK, you didn’t ask, but we’re going to tell you anyway. Not patience, not insight, not mediation skills, not tolerance for ... Read more

Parenting tips on overly competitive behavior

As I love to watch non-professional sports, I have been a regular at area basketball games over the past few months. Thus I witnessed struggles by children and adolescents with overly competitive behavior.

Parents seated nearby shared my concerns and wondered if sports encourage aggressive outbursts in participants and if competition is healthy for children. One mother, alarmed by her son’s behavior, inquired, “How will I know if he needs professional help?”

Good question. And, at her request, I shall address it.

Perhaps the best way to think of this issue is in terms of normal childhood development. Toddlers begin to have competitive feelings with siblings, which often focus on the issue “Me first!”

Gradually these competitive feelings get expressed outside the family with peers in preschool. But by kindergarten and certainly 1st grade, children should be able to relate to age-mates as partners with feelings. Thus they are socially ready for group play. Competitive feelings still exist, but not in such a demanding, mean-spirited way.

By their nature, games are an arena for the deployment of competitive skills – some of an attacking and others of a defending nature. Governed by inflexible rules, participants must be able to tolerate frustration and control their aggression.

 As they play and compete, all children compare themselves to others to see where they fall on the achievement scale, priding themselves on their abilities and worrying about their shortcomings.

Eventually healthy children get on friendly terms with their strengths and weaknesses and gain both proficiency and pleasure from competitive games. They also develop an appreciation for their teammates’ skills and can play cooperatively without becoming overly excited or aggressive.

But some children suffer in silence, withdrawing from group play as they feel so inferior to their peers. Others show off their superiority – taunting and ridiculing those who cannot perform at their level. In both of these situations, children are telling adults, through their behavior, that they are in need of help.

Other indicators of a need for professional assistance include:

  • Overly aggressive behavior with a desire to hurt others
  • Inability to tolerate frustration leading to outbursts
  • Overly controlling behavior (ie. “ball hog”)
  • Endless complaints about unfairness and being mistreated
  • Repeatedly cheating
  • Inability to tolerate losing; desperate need to win
  • Showing off and always expressing “better than” feelings

For more Parenting Tips, visit

Image courtesy of Naypong/

The Santa Question

This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually.

The Tooth Fairy

No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a child starts losing teeth – at about 6 – he’s already well aware that there’s no good reason for someone in a tutu with wings and a wand to go flitting from bedroom to bedroom gathering up the baby teeth from the world’s first-graders. What could she possibly do with them all?

Then to confirm his suspicions that some hoax is involved, you wake him up in the middle of the night feeling around under his pillow, or you fall asleep before he does and neglect to switch the lost tooth for a silver dollar until he reminds you. But he doesn’t complain; he’s happy for the extra cash and he enjoys the game.

The Easter Bunny

That a rabbit would hop about carrying a basket, hiding eggs and delivering jelly beans is a story so silly that a very small child could see through it. She loves the fantasy of it, however, as well as all that candy that she’s actually allowed to eat before breakfast on Easter morning.

But it wouldn’t ruin her day at all if she were to catch you hiding the eggs. She understands imaginative play full well and would know right away that you’re just pretending.

Superman and Wonder Woman

Children enjoy pretending they are these all-powerful characters, and we adults can easily understand why they would: Children are small and comparatively weak, while these superheroes are neither.

You let them wear bath towels as capes around their shoulders and fly about the house saving captive dolls and rescuing endangered teddy bears. You only intervene if the furniture seems threatened, or if the children appear to actually believe that they could safely leap out of windows.

But they don’t. They understand it’s all fantasy play and so do you.

Hannukah Charlie

For some reason he never did make it to the big time, maybe because he was just thought up as a Santa Claus substitute. Which brings us to …

Santa Claus

On the one hand there are those who, for religious, moral or psychological reasons, want him done away with:

He represents greed, they say, not the true spirit of Christmas; parents who demonstrate their love by making or buying elaborate gifts for their children should not give that overweight, bearded virtual stranger the credit. Parents should not tell lie after lie to their children about how he gets into their house even though they don’t have a fireplace – or why he appears in every store and on every street corner even though there’s only one of him. Or how he can manage to get to the millions of children in the world in only one night, etc. He doesn’t really exist and we should tell our children, so they say – and the earlier the better.

On the other hand are those parents who still half-believe in Santa themselves:

They tell their kids that Santa “sees them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake” so they’d better behave or Santa won’t leave them any presents. They start decorating the house with red-suited icons shortly after Halloween, insist that their kids visit a department store Santa and sit on his lap even if they scream in protest, and maintain the Santa myth until their kids are well into their teens.

Which way to lean on the issue of Santa is up to the individual family, of course. But our recommendation would be for moderation. The fun about believing in Santa is not lost when the pretend aspect of it is acknowledged. It’s probably a good idea not to frighten your children with Santa – either with his all-knowing ability to know if they ate all their peas or fed them to the dog; or with forcing your little one to sit on the lap of someone she never met and doesn’t care to. But go ahead and play the game.

Pretend along with your child that there really is a sleigh pulled with reindeer and a North Pole where elves create shiny toys. But you needn’t lie and connive to perpetuate the myth. Pretend that Santa brings gifts to your house on Christmas Eve, but if you’ve spent many hours building a dollhouse or saved up for months in order to buy that special bicycle, let your child know that those gifts are from you.

Speculate with your children about how Santa manages to do all those miraculous things, but don’t be afraid to explain that it’s all magical make-believe, pretend. Just like the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Wonder Woman and Superman are pretend. Very real, but still pretend. Who knows better than your child about pretending?

And don’t keep all the fun for yourself. Let him pretend to be Santa too.

Image courtesy of Ron Bird/


Keeping holidays focused on the children

It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up.

The holidays are coming. The media is ratcheting up the excitement and the stores are inviting us in with glorious decorations, repetitive holiday music and store shelves overburdened with things to buy.

We are beginning to feel a little overwhelmed and as though we couldn’t keep up either. We wonder how the dictionary could ever have defined “holiday” as “That period of time when one does not work and does things for pleasure instead.”

In the rush of it all, what can we do to keep the children – particularly the preschoolers – in mind over the next few weeks?

“Oh for goodness sakes” you might object. “We constantly keep them in mind. We rush about buying them toys so they will have plenty of gifts. We make sure they have special clothes to wear and we hurry to get their pictures taken with Santa. We push our time limits to take them to see the big-headed characters in the downtown shopping center. What more do you want us to do?”

Perhaps we should all take a minute to try to see things from young children’s perspective, since we insist “These holidays are for children.”

Doing so might result in fewer frantic moments and less exhaustion for everyone.

Perhaps your children really aren’t so keen on having a picture taken with Santa. This you may observe if you stand watching one preschoolers after another scream while being hoisted onto the bearded man’s lap.

Perhaps being pulled along through the mall trying to avoid the oncoming legs is not something that is fun. Perhaps a mound of toys, to be opened in a few hours is, in truth, overwhelming.

“Yes,” you agree, “each year we do resolve to calm it down – next time But each year we get caught up in the excitement and the guilt we know we’ll feel if we let someone down.”

We Grandmothers got together and, after admitting that we too get caught up in holiday excitement, decided to suggest the following ideas to young parents. It might help.

1. Let your preschoolers help you

Decide whether a picture with Santa or the trip to the mall to see the big-heads is worth the trip, the wait and the anxiety it often causes for young children.

Set up a place at home where things can be made by your preschoolers and wrapped as gifts.

Kids love to help in making cookies or decorating butcher paper with handprints or potato prints to use as wrapping paper.

Any mess can be cleaned up faster than you can go to a mall, find a parking space, lift your preschooler out of his car seat and keep track of him as you run from store to store.

More important, the times you are quietly spending with your child – and the inner pleasure she gets as she makes the gift, gives it and is showered with appreciation – far outweighs the time it takes to clean up. 

2. Prepare them for what’s happening

When your holiday involves travel to visit a friend or relative, prepare your children for what will happen. We take so many things for granted and forget it is all new to them. They may erroneously think, as one o four own grandchildren once did, that they won’t be returning home.

Young children fill in missing information with their own private assumptions that often never get voiced because they are afraid of what they may hear.

“Where will I sleep? Will there be a bathroom there? What’s a kennel and what will happen to Spot? Will someone feed him? Will we ever see him again?” There are reasonable questions for a young child who has little experience with such holiday hubbub.

Often people come to visit and household members are shifted to other rooms to make room for grandparents or friends. If this is a surprise to your preschooler be prepared for embarrassing tears of objection.

A discussion ahead of time about the change – about how hard it can be to give up a room for a few days, with a concrete description of exactly where everyone will sleep – often helps alleviate any showdown.

Being a part of the alternative plan and feeling the welcoming attitude of a mother and father beforehand enriches the experience in ways that live well beyond these holidays

3. Reduce the burden on yourself

We can take a cue from the breaking news each year that the “Black Friday” shopping rush has overtaken a little bit more of Thanksgiving Day, as employees implore management to “please respect our families and allow these rare times when we can be together.”

The times children remember as most special are those when parents themselves are able to relax and enjoy special time together.

Though it may be difficult at first, mothers and fathers can reduce the times when they are feeling they have to rush along with young children plastered to their sides to get it all done. Make these holidays “those periods of time when one does not work and does things for pleasure instead.”

Image courtesy of ImageryMajestic/ 



Please don’t scare the little ones at Halloween time

Every year, the month of October brings a crescendo of frights leading up to Halloween. They appear everywhere – on television, in stores, at parties and even early learning centers and schools.

It’s all meant in fun, but for very young children scary fun isn’t fun at all; it’s just scary.

Here’s a column written several years ago. As long as we can count on zombies and goblins to appear this time of year, we’ll resurrect it as a reminder to parents, educators and concerned adults.


Dear Grandmothers:  A few years ago, my 3-year-old Phoebe helped me hand out treats on Halloween and we were having a lot of fun until a child dressed as a witch came to the door. Phoebe was terrified—she ran and hid under a table and wouldn’t even go near the door the rest of the evening. What should I do to make Halloween less traumatic for her this year?            –Phoebe’s Mom

We answered:  First, let us congratulate you on taking your child’s fears seriously – and before October 30. So often, we are taken by surprise when all the hype — which begins just after the Back to School sales — begins to cause our children to become over-excited or nervous. We may not realize that such behavior is all about the upcoming season of scare.

Despite all our talk to our preschoolers about the difference between what’s pretend and what’s real, they are still too young to really know this. Even though they say “I know it’s not real,” they can still be confused and frightened when confronted by witches, skeletons, ghosts and monsters – all the scary props of the season.

You can help your preschooler if you can just remember that everything she sees is absolutely real to her.

Another way to help young children is to recognize that your memories of your childhood Halloween fun are not from your preschool years.  You certainly were in elementary school when you had so much fun trick or treating until all hours with your friends, watching a scary video, or visiting a haunted house.

Many parents remember only those school-age Halloweens and think that such activities are what it’s all about, even for the littlest children. But they’re not—those kinds of activities are way too much for preschoolers.

Don’t worry;  you have many years ahead of reliving your childhood Halloween fun.  Just don’t rush it with the little ones.

So, what can you do for Phoebe this year?

Protect her from scary TV (even many commercials are overwhelming and frightening—or, at the very least, confusing).

Be on the lookout for signs that she is overwhelmed, overexcited, scared.  Is she running around excitedly, or does she cling to you, have her fingers in her mouth? Any unusual behavior at this time of year should make you wonder if she’s confused or frightened and should prompt you to ask her if she is worried about something.

Just your recognition of her nervousness will reassure her and help her to calm down.

If you can get her to tell you what she is worried about, don’t try to talk her out of her fears; acknowledge them and try to figure out a way to help her manage.

Let her decide how much she wants to participate in Halloween activities, respect her wishes. And give her a calmed down, low-key Halloween:  a costume, no mask;  trick or treating at a few friends’ or neighbors’ houses;  pumpkins and cute black cat decorations;  protections from anything that is overwhelming and not understood—or at least acknowledgement of those things and reassurance from you that you will keep her safe.

So, have fun this year, but be on the lookout for things that are “too much.”  All too soon she’ll be 10 and begging you to help her put up a haunted house in the garage.

Photo courtesy of Phaitoon/

When the little one is acting sneaky

A while ago I visited a friend and her family. One afternoon I found myself in the kitchen with Janine, her lively little 4-year- old. She was playing with a puzzle and I was helping prepare dinner and her mother had gone into the garden. She suddenly looked around and pushed a small stool against the cupboards. She glanced behind, climbed up and reached to the back of the shelf from which she pulled a chocolate.

Holding it tightly, she jumped back on to the floor, pushed the stool back to its proper position and hurried over to her play area. The chocolate was hastily unwrapped and devoured and the wrapper was immediately buried in the garbage can. She returned to her puzzle.

I was a visitor and knew full well by the look on her face and her hurried and furtive movements that the hidden candy was out of bounds and this little girl knew it. I neither said nor did anything.

In retrospect I should have immediately wondered with her if she was into something she should not have been, and that maybe Mommy had warned her not to eat the candy. I should have suggested that she’d feel bad if she did something she knew Mommy wouldn’t like.

Instead I watched with fascination as she found an inventive, rather athletic way to reach the forbidden candy. The truth of the matter was that now we both felt guilty – Janine for breaking a rule even if she didn’t get caught, and I for allowing it to happen without some gentle, adult intervention.

Who among us can honestly claim to have never been sneaky about anything – particularly if we define it as doing something forbidden, on the sly?

Sneakiness and lying in young children often infuriates parents and teachers. It’s interesting that in adulthood our own sneaky histories are not only remembered in great detail but often humorously shared with friends. We remember exactly what we did and whether we were caught or got away with it. It was the guilt that imprinted these memories.

It’s unwise to accuse a 4-year old of being a sneak or if, when caught and she denies it, a liar. These are strong words to use and aren’t any more help than looking away – as did I.

Adults rightly feel an obligation to discourage children from being sneaky or telling lies, and there are lessons to be taught about rules and the truth. But nothing is to be gained by severely punishing them when they transgress.

Severe admonitions simply result in a small child’s trying to survive the fear of a parent’s anger or the possibility of being spanked – rather than feeling bad about what they had done and regretting it. Terrifying children with angry words and punishment might well drive them further into more inventive sneakiness and lying and more creative ways to avoid being caught.

Young children’s sneakiness can be attributed to wanting something that is missing or forbidden, an urge they have that can’t be satisfied. Their wishes are very strong at this young age; having those wishes denied results in angry feelings. They feel they haven’t been able to get enough when being aboveboard with Mom and Dad, so the impulse to get what they want trumps the newly learned rules and all other feelings.

When caught, young children often lie. It’s an indication that they wish they had done the right thing and, rather than feeling uncomfortable about what they have done, they invent a new reality that would seem to make things better: they lie. They really don’t want to deliberately deceive others in order to “get away” with their forbidden acts.

Believe it or not, this lie can often be a confession, because the discomfort of a sneaky act or the lie that follows is almost more than they can bear.

By 4 years of age Janine already knew many of the family “rules” and knew the candy was not to be taken without permission. She knew her mother would be angry and would certainly scold her had she been caught mid-theft. She also predicted that if she had asked, she would have been denied the candy.

So how to approach your young child when you’re sure this sneaky behavior will land her in prison one day? Contrary to the way I reacted to Janine’s behavior, it would have been far more helpful for me to talk to her about taking something forbidden and about how bad she would feel inside if she did.

Recognizing with her how much she wanted the forbidden candy, for example, and how hard it was not to grab that piece when no one was looking might have helped her hear me. Suggesting we talk to Mom about a time when she might have one would be important or if she can’t, making that clear and finding a substitute food or activity.

Approval by parents is very powerful in young children. So much depends on this strong relationship and a child’s wish to keep it close. It often leads to children denying themselves something they badly want just to maintain it. At first it works when the parents are nearby, but not when they are absent. It’s for this reason baby sitters can have difficulty with a child’s behavior. Eventually it becomes the child’s job to keep the rules in mind even in the absence of  parents. But that is a skill that takes time to learn.

So take heart and don’t fret if your preschooler takes a wrapped chocolate from the shelf when she thinks you’re not watching, or if she denies it when caught. Try not to accuse her or jump to conclusions. Also be aware that nighttime fears often show up as a sign of your child’s inner worries about naughtiness or temptations. Alone in bed, these forbidden acts surface and she fears punishment. As hard as it is, allow her to let you know when she has been sneaky or has lied, and do your best to keep the communication open.

With your help, as your child gets older, the rules will be remembered and her behavior will be modified. If all goes well, by around 5 years or 6 years of age her conscience will be all-powerful and she will be consumed with rules and whether things are fair.

It’s a big developmental step for your child and you can take pride in how she then begins to manage these temptations and any need to be sneaky or to lie when caught will eventually diminish or disappear.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Support Hanna Perkins when you shop at Heinen’s

If you shop at Heinen’s and use its Preferred Card, you can help Hanna Perkins School receive valuable donations that support us in providing valuable services to families throughout Northeast Ohio.

Through the grocery store’s Tasteful Rewards program, Preferred Card users can select a school to receive a donation form Heinen’s of 1% of whatever they buy during the school year (Sept – April).

If you already have a Heinen’s Preferred Card, please help by visiting and clicking the link there to designate Hanna Perkins School as your ABC School Program recipient. If you don’t already have a card but want to join the program, click here to register.

Toilet Mastery

When are Children Ready for Toilet Mastery?

When a child’s needs have been adequately met during his first year (fed when he is hungry, provided a regular sleep schedule, cleaned up when his diaper is dirty), he is then ready to take on more of this self-care himself.

Therefore, in their child’s second year, parents should be alert to signs that he is moving in this direction and help him as he takes the steps towards mastery of eating, sleeping, and toileting.

Evidence that he is ready to feed himself is hard to miss: He grabs for the spoon, he puts things in his mouth, and Mom is ready with Cheerios and easily-managed finger foods to help him move ahead in this progression toward self care.

And so it goes for toileting: Near the end of the second year, parents should start watching for signs that the child knows when he is urinating or having a bowel movement and help him accomplish toilet mastery.

Why Do Parents Miss the Signals that the Child is Ready for the Potty?

Two things cause parents problems these days. First is the recent trend toward putting infants on the potty whenever the caregiver sees signs that the baby is about to urinate or have a bowel movement. Of course, this is ecologically correct (less waste in landfills) and saves money in diapers, but exactly who is mastering what?

Parents are the ones who are trained and must be constantly vigilant. No mastery has actually come from the child.

A second problem is the phenomenon of larger and larger (and more and more absorbent) disposable diapers and pull-ups on store shelves.

Seeing these lulls parents into assuming that toilet mastery comes much later than the latter part of the second year. So they are not on the lookout for signs that their child is ready to take this step toward using the potty instead of pull-ups.

What’s Wrong With Waiting Until the Child is 3?

When a child is not helped to move along in this phase of meeting his own needs at the developmentally correct time, the accomplishment of this step when the child is older will be much more difficult.

By the time a child is 3, he is aware that there are other children even younger than he who are using the bathroom, and may wonder if there is something wrong with him when he has not achieved this mastery. Then he may not even want to try, for fear of having this suspicion verified — that there really is something wrong with him.

Another issue here is a child’s pride of mastery. We all recognize the toddler’s movement towards independence – that wonderful demand of “me do it” that signals his growing feeling of being a separate person.

Taking away the opportunity for this big developmental step of toilet mastery is stealing a vital feeling of accomplishment. A child who has experienced this sense of competence as a toddler will have the confidence to try new things and expect success in the many tasks he will face throughout his school career and after.

What are the Signs that the Child is Ready for Toilet Mastery?

Just as parents recognize the child’s behavior that alerts them to stop spoon-feeding and let the child eat independently and enthusiastically, now is the time to look for signs that he is ready for the potty.

Does he know when he is urinating and having a BM? Is he asking to be changed? Is he beginning to identify with the parents’ pleasure of seeing him clean and dry? Does he dislike getting his hands messy? Does he want to be a big boy and do everything the big people do? And does he resist passively lying down for diaper changes?

These are all signs that it’s time for the training pants (not pull-ups; they absorb the urine and deprive the child of that uncomfortable feeling that we want him to reject).

What gets in the way of parents helping with this?

Helping a child achieve these all-important self-masteries can take time and effort as well as provoke feelings of frustration and even anger at the inevitable messes that occur. Parents can sometimes ignore signals, delay helping their child take this step in self-care, reassuring themselves that “no child ever graduated from high school wearing diapers.”

But perhaps they are avoiding what they fear could be occasions for conflict. Maybe they need to keep their child dependent on them, dreading this ultimate step towards independence and the loss of the closeness they had with their baby.

Another more practical problem is parents’ busy schedules. It is so much quicker to get to work in the morning or to get in and out of the grocery store if you don’t have to stop whatever you are doing to find the restroom for your toddler.

What Difference Does it Make When He is Trained?

First, it is so much easier when he is ready and eager to become a big boy who doesn’t need diapers anymore. Then he will be proud to be doing something on his own and it will be his accomplishment.

As he gets older, there can be battles of will with parents and it can become more about the battle than the toileting. Parents need to find the part of the child that wants to grow and be partners with his efforts – not take it on as their job.

When the time is right for him, not just when it’s convenient for the parents, accomplishing these steps towards self-care promote a child’s self-esteem immeasurably; they contribute to his growing sense of competence which will stand him in good stead in all his school years and throughout life.

Image courtesy of John Kasawa/