Should you use rewards such as sweets or sticker charts whilst potty training your child? Here’s why external motivators aren’t as helpful as you might think.
Lots of potty training methods talk about stickers and reward charts and you might have noticed that our website features no downloadable rewards charts, none of our social media posts are about our favourite sources of stickers and there is a very good reason for that.
Sticker charts don’t work.
As you know, every bit of advice that we offer parents is evidence-based- and supported by research. It’s not just anecdotal. So when we say that sticker charts don’t work, it’s because it has been proven that they really don’t work. There are links to the supporting research at the botton of this blog.
Where did the idea come from?
Sticker charts exist because somewhere, someone is profiting from the sale, manufacture or promotion of them and exploiting parents at a time when they are vulnerable to being sold a solution. Parents often use them because they dont know how else to persuade their child or because what they have already tried hasn’t worked. The appeal of sticker charts is that they feel like a way to avoid a battle of wills with your child.
Yes your child might love any excuse to have their favourite snack, yes a sticker chart featuring their favourite cartoon character might catch their attention but resorting to using an external motivator like a sticker chart or snack is addressing the symptom and not the cause.
The ideal way to potty train is to start early (before 18 months it is easier to motivate your child) and to get to know your child’s elimination patterns so that when you do tell them to use the potty, it is at a time when you are confident that they need to go. Sticker charts are used as a way to avoid having to do the original leg work, they put the emphasis on the child rather than the parent. But if you have done the work to get to know your child’s signals, habits and timing then you will be armed with the knowledge and confidence to lead this process. Remember readiness to potty train is about the parent’s readiness, not the child’s. Children are born ready and it’s your job to understand what they are capable of and work with them. If you havent done this part, external motivators like stickers are going to look like an ideal solution – but if you’ve done your home work, you wont need stickers. When it comes to potty training, the most important motivation that you need to concern yourself with is your child’s internal motivation.
Why is it internal motivation so important?
External motivators such as sweets and stickers don’t help your child to develop a natural love of learning which is a valuable life skill. Rewarding someone for learning something also de-values how important it is to learn it – it puts the focus on getting a sticker or a sweet being the important part, not the part where they are using the potty. Learning how to be independent from nappies and use the toilet like other adults do is important to learn. The reason to learn it is because it is important, not to get a sticker or sweet.
Your toddler genuinely wants to please you and wants to be proud of themselves and it’s so important to preserve this sense that they have, rather than inadvertently teach our children that they should do things to get things rather than because doing those things are important.
How do I motivate my child internally?
The language that you use is an important part of getting this right. When you are talking to your child you can help them to understand how important it is to learn this skill:
“show Mummy/Daddy how you can go potty”
and acknowledge what they have achieved
“I was so proud of the way you used the potty when you needed to go!”
We are often accustomed to saying “good boy!” or “well done!” but children need us to be specific
“I saw how well you sat down on your potty all by yourself!”
or “look at you, doing a wee in your potty, I’m so proud of you!”
You can praise all of their efforts verbally
“that was great that you remembered to wash your hands!”
or “aren’t you clever for pressing the flusher!”, just don’t get carried away because sometimes this can take the emphasis away from their achievement and put the attention on to the celebration itself.
Children want to be like their parents, they spend their lives learning to imitate what you do from the way you move (walking) the way you talk, to the important functions of the day. They already know that you don’t use a nappy and what they need is for you to help them to get there.
Your child will respond positively to having input in this process, particularly at the toddler stage when they really crave being more independent and are easily frustrated when they can’t do what they want to do. You can help them by involving them.
If they need help getting dressed, don’t do it all for them. Pull their trousers part of the way up or down and let them finish the rest. Psychologically they actually feel like just doing the last part of the process means that they have done all of it so they will feel a real sense of pride and achievement just from contributing. Phase out the part that you are doing as soon as you can so that they can see their own learning trajectory.
Often parents feel like they need a reward to convince a child to use the potty when they don’t want to. This comes from asking a child if they need to go rather than telling them it’s time to go. Once they have said no, convincing them to try with a sticker might work, but remember this is creating a problem, not solving one. Stickers may appear to work intially but results often backfire, leading to more problematic longer term concequences, because they affect the mindset as well as the relationship between parent and child. This is known as the “reward economy” (the invisible force of “whats in it for me?” mentality).
How do you motivate them to go when you know they need to go?
Simple! You can offer them choices. Not the choice of whether to go, but HOW to go.
When it’s time to go potty you can say “would you like to read this book or this book on the potty” or “would you like me to sit with you or give you some privacy whilst you go potty?” – just make sure whatever choice you offer, it ends with them sitting on the potty.
Giving them a choice about whether to use the potty or not gives them the option of saying no and then you are at a dead end where consent is concerned. This is the point where using a reward to convince your child seems very tempting. But it can so easily be avoided. Instead, give them closed-end choices to help them feel in control of the process, whilst still controlling the part of the process you are in charge of – getting them to sit on the potty.
It is absolutely possible to motivate your child to learn this important life skill without having to bribe them, and the way you approach mastering this skill will give them a foundation for how they learn throughout their whole life.
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Here at Little Bunny Bear, we believe in sharing advice that is supported by research evidence, rather than anecdotal. Here are the links to the research evidence which supports this blog.
- Boelens, Van Der Brook and Beieshuizen (2003) Using a Pants Alarm for the Treatment of Day Wetting: Problems with Compliance. Volume: 93 issue.
- Toilet training and toileting refusal for stool only: a prospective study. Jan;99(1):54-8.
- Stadtler AC1, Gorski PA, Brazelton TB.1999 Toilet training methods, clinical interventions, and recommendations. American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatrics. Jun;103(6 Pt 2):1359-68.
- Fabes RA, Fulse J, Eisenberg N, et al (1989). Effects of rewards on children’s prosocial motivation: A socialization study. Developmental Psychology 25: 509-515.
- Warneke, F, Tomasello, M (2008) extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental Psychology. Nov;44(6):1785-8
- Kohn, A ‘Punished by rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes’, Houghton Mifflin, 2000