Going to the Potty = Thomas the Train toy?

I heard a story of a child whose parents would buy a little Thomas the Train toy for every time he went to use the potty. He was very motivated to go potty because he wanted the Thomas Train toy.
One day, he went to stay with his aunt who happened to be a well-trained early childhood teacher. He was asked to go potty and jumped at the chance to go potty. He went, flushed, pulled up his pants, and washed his hands.
Then he said, “Ok, let’s go to the toy store.”
“Why would we go to the toy store?”.
“To get a Thomas toy. I went potty.”
“I’m sorry, we aren’t going to the toy store today.”
“But what do I get for going potty?”
“You get clean pants!”
The child proceeded to throw a tantrum, but after some comforting the child was able to move on.

The Teacher understood two very important concepts that affected her approach in this situation.

She understood the concept of a natural consequence. A natural consequence to going outside without a coat is feeling cold. A natural consequence to not going potty in the toilet is going potty in your pants which gives you dirty clothes and a dirty body that needs to be cleaned. She used the natural consequence to teach the child another important concept: Intrinsic motivation.

The motivation to going potty for this child was the reward of the Thomas Train toy. It was very very motivating and effective. It was also unsustainable (I bet it cost the parents more to potty train then to just keep buying diapers!). But it sent a very unhealthy message to the child that going to the potty meant that he should get some reward for it. It could then be generalized that doing anything good requires a reward.

Imagine then (or just go to a local Kindergarten classroom) and observe children who always ask, “What will I get for doing that?” For so long they are motivated by treats, trips to the store, seeing special people, going to the park, and all of these motivators that aren’t natural consequences to the desired or undesired behavior.

What we’re raising then is a person who expects compensation and rewards for everything they do. Some people may agree with that message. I don’t. I want to see our next generation be a people of great generosity and understanding. People who help without asking for something in return. People who understand that they would decide to act on the basis that it was the right thing to do.

It may seem so far out of the ballpark that a child can derive all of that from getting a Thomas Train toy for going to the bathroom. But that is the real deal. What a child does in play at these early years, they will do in real life. I wish that’s how it worked, that I got a dollar every time I had a bowel movement. But to be honest with you, I’ll take the clean clothes over the dollar.

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