incentives and motivations in the house

June 10th, 2009

We’re in the middle of potty training. I’ve mentioned trying to potty train on my site before, and thanks to the wisdom I gained potty training my first, I realize that physiological readiness (a.k.a. ability to hold it) is just as important as enthusiasm and coordination to get to the bathroom, get undressed and go. Sylvie has had the coordination for a long while, now, and the enthusiasm for well over a year, but it is only recently that she has stopped peeing constantly (the physiological part). The problem is that since we’d been stifling the enthusiasm, waiting for the other parts to catch up, the motivation had started to wane. M&Ms enter stage right.

We don’t often ply our children with junk food, and I poo-poo using bribery to encourage children to do something they clearly aren’t ready for, but, well, we were all ready to ditch the diapers, and it ultimately came down to M&Ms, a simple motivational system.

Sunday, I stocked the house with 2lbs of M&Ms and a new potty training book – How to Potty Train Your Monster. (Between you and me, the book is mildly obnoxious, but Sylvie loves it and it does reinforce that accidents happen and she shouldn’t make a mess with the toilet paper – both excellent points.)
I was nervous about the chocolate route. It didn’t seem sustainable. How long do we use chocolate? Would we send her off to college with chocolate rewards for using the potty?

Evening 1, the chocolate was a hit. Dry underwear until bedtime. Mention chocolate and Sylvie makes a b-line for the potty.

Day 1, I just had to mention, “Hey, you want some chocolate?” Off to the toilet she’d run, thrilled when something came out. 5 accidents, 14 successful evacuations.

Day 2 was a school day, and so we gave Sylvie the day off.

Day 3, today, started off with an accident followed immediately by proper use of the potty, but generally, the power of M&Ms had worn off. She made it until bedtime with 3 accidents and 9 successful evacuations. Tonight Sylvie insisted on wearing underwear to bed, and turned down chocolate for her last bathroom trips. Looks like self-motivation and pride are taking over.

This was an interesting exercise in motivation, and it turns out to be proving that simple reward paradigms where there is a well understood pattern of rewards for behavior get boring quickly, even to a 2 year old. The M&Ms seemed to be a good catalyst to rewaken the more powerful personal enthusiasm and pride. It looks as though I might be eating all that chocolate myself.


Another motivational technique we use in the house is the marble jar. I feel much better about this reward system because it doesn’t rot anyone’s teeth. Although it is not much more complicated than the M&Ms, it is just enough more so that it has kept Will engaged for ~6 mos. The kids get marbles for doing good deeds and when they’ve earned enough (50), they get to redeem those marbles for a toy from Target. Will loves this, and the randomness with which we reward him with a marble – there are a few gimmes like cleaning up someone else’s mess, but most rewarding is left to the discretion of the parent on duty – has made Will an incredibly enthusiastic helper. The kid is raking in the rewards. Happy helper, above, pictured with his latest treasure.