The Cultural Conflict Over Toilet Training


By Mary Exton



“These will get really stiff and uncomfortable and take hours to dry,” my mother said, poking suspiciously at the very expensive ducky-printed Velcro-closing cloth diapers my mother-in-law had sent across the Pacific.  Bicultural marriage was not that easy.  It seemed that we always had a lot to figure out about which way we should live.  Before my daughter Elizabeth was born, my husband told me of the disposable diapers.  But China didn’t make diapers, disposable or otherwise.   At the fancy hotel drugstore, imported Pampers or Huggies sold for the equivalent of a dollar apiece.  At that rate, we calculated Elizabeth would be going through $4,000 worth a year.  Our salaries were only half that amount.

One month after Elizabeth was born, my mother suggested we toilet train her.  My husband suspected this early toilet training wouldn’t work.   Having read several parent books sent from America, my husband mumbled something incoherent about the emotional scarring of over-early toilet training.  My mother often bragged to me that I was well done with my toilet training when I was six months old.  She was confident she could toilet train Elizabeth.  Motherhood was a new experience for me, so my mother became my first supervisor.

Chinese toilet training means to hold a baby gently by the hips over a potty or by the edge of the road and whistle softly to imitate the tinkle of urine.  Chinese babies and toddlers don’t wear diapers at all, not even cloth ones.  Instead, they always wear open-crotch pants.  Cotton, water and soap are all scarce items.  Someone is always available to be with a Chinese baby.  Parents begin to toilet train their child as early as one month.  Incredibly, most babies are toilet-trained by six months, at least during waking hours.  By the time they can walk, usually at twelve to fourteen months, they know to squat down in their open-crotch pants whenever they feel the urge.

Just as my mother said, Elizabeth was toilet-trained  when she was seven months old.  Even though she had some accidents, most of the time she knew to tell us she needed help to use the potty.

An American friend, Barbara, trying to toilet train her own son, watched in amazement once as teachers prepared fifteen toddlers for a turn on the trampoline in a playground.  “The teachers went around and said, ‘pee, pee, pee,’” said Barbara.  “I thought, how could they all have to go at the same time?  But they all squatted down.”  A lot of American people were shocked by Elizabeth’s well done toilet-training at that early age.  I was also shocked by some American three-year olds still using diapers.

I had my second child in America.  I tried to use the Chinese way to train him to use the potty, but it didn’t work!!  He is one and a half years old now, and he still uses diapers.  My mother called me a lazy mother because I am relaxed about training the American-born baby.  Living in the different culture, having heard much different information about this issue, I stuck to my guns.

Cultural conflicts can create quite a challenge.  In many ways, they are an asset.  You can not only gain strength and skills as you work your way through them, but you can gain new knowledge as well (Gonzalez-Mena, 1997).  Toilet-training is the issue that is heavily laden with emotion for most people, one which there seems to be no obvious answer which is right and which is wrong.  I was embroiled in a cultural conflict.

Part of the problem resides in the definition and goal of toilet training (Gonzalez-Mena, 1997).  If the caregiver defines toilet training as teaching or encouraging the child independently to take care of his or her own toileting needs and her goal is to accomplish this as quickly and painlessly as possible, she’ll regard twelve months as too early to start.  Children of under twelve months need adult help.  However, if toilet training is regarded as a reduction of the number of diapers used and the method is to form a partnership with the child to do just that, you’ll start as soon as you can read the children’s signals and “catch them in time.”  It focuses on interdependence or mutual dependence.

“Americans, who value independence and individuality, see the baby as dependent, undifferentiated… the Chinese, who prize close interdependence between a child and adult, regard the infant as having a small component of autonomy… believe they must tempt the infant into a dependent role, rush to soothe a crying infant, respond quietly to the baby’s excited babbling, and sleep with the young child at night in order to encourage the mutual bonding necessary for adult life.” (Kagan, 1984)

Chinese babies are held so much of the time, there is an immediate response from caregivers to urination and bowel movements.  Hence from an early age, there is an association in the infant’s mind between these functions and actions from the mother.  Consequently, when the baby wants to urinate, his whole body participates in the preliminary process.  The Chinese mother, holding the baby in her arms, learns to be sensitive to the minute details of the process, and to hold the baby away from herself at exactly the critical moment.  Eventually, the infant learns to ask to be held out.  In contrast, the transition is more difficult for middle-class American infants whose functions typically occur alone.  The mother begins to interfere with bowel and bladder activity after many months of only cursory attention.

When I visited the teacher Althea Goundry who works in the Plymouth State College Development and Family Center, she told me American people won’t start to train their children until the children show an interest in using the toilet and are physically ready (Personal Interview).  A toddler should have the verbal and conceptual skills to be able to understand what is expected during toilet training.  He should know that certain things  belong in certain places.  She was very interested in what I said about Chinese toilet-training.  She said most Americans don’t try behaviorist strategies, maybe it is easier to stay the way it is than to change it.  American research also shows children won’t stay dry and clean much before 24 months of age.  “On the other hand,” she told me, “I think it is better to pull more than to push.”  She also feels it is necessary to provide the child with a treat after successful use of the toilet, to reinforce the learning that has occurred.  Two behaviorists (Azrin & Faxx, quoted in Shimoni, 1992) suggest that children over 24 months of age can be taught to use the potty by imitation and reward.

“There is no shame with accident,” Althea told me.  This is another different point from Chinese toilet-training.  The characteristic of Chinese culture is honor and “saving face”.  I punished my daughter’s feelings.  Chinese toilet training implies that the focus is on what the adult does, rather than what the child does.  Research shows that children have their own feelings about toilet-training.  They are being asked to do something that they often cannot see any reason for.  Their compliance will depend on their readiness (Shimoni, 1992).  If a child is not ready, toilet-training can become a battle of wills.  Toilet-training is regarded as a highly individualized process in America.  The children should be trained without pressure.

Culture is never static; it continues to evolve.  When one culture rubs up against another, both are transformed (Gonzalez-Mena, 1997).  A challenge for many parents in this country is to maintain their cultural identity and pass it on to their children in the face of this inevitable evolution.

 Cultures are not superior or inferior; they just are.  Toilet training is the issue that made me learn more about and appreciate human diversity.  Because I live in America now, I would say “help the children to learn” rather than “train them.”  Toilet-training should be though of as a combination of  skills that the child will acquire with guidance and assistance from parents and teachers.




Gonzalez-Mena, Janet (1997) Multicultural Issues in Child Care

                California:  Mayfield Publishing Company

Goundrey, Althea Facilitating Teacher and Health and Safety

                Coordinator in Plymouth State College Child Development and

                Family Center, Personal interview, 1997,11

Kagan, Jerome (1984) The Nature of the Child P.29

                New York:  Basic Books

Shimoni, Rena & Baxter, Joanne & Kugelmass, Judith (1992)

                Every Child Is Special

                New York:  Addison-Wesley Publishers Limited

Temke, Mary, Toilet Training UNH Cooperative Extension

                New Hampshire:  University of New Hampshire

Weiser, Margaret G. (1991) Infant/Toddler Care And Education

                New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company