Rewards Photo

Potty Training Incentives that Won’t Set You Up for Disaster

Rewards or no rewards? This is a highly debated question with no easy answer.

When it comes to potty training, there is a lot of conflicting information. Should you offer rewards? Should you not offer rewards? It can feel overwhelming. 

Using a reward system for potty training is a personal choice, but it will also depend on your child. For example, some parents swear by stickers and candy, while others tell you children shouldn’t be rewarded for expected behavior. 

I don’t love the idea of bribing kids because it takes away from their intrinsic motivation and developing a growth mindset. But potty training can be challenging, and providing your child with incentives can make the process easier for everyone.

What’s the Debate About?

Potty training rewards for toddlers is one of those divisive topics in the parenting community. Some potty training experts say they are a no-no, while many parents swear it was the only way they survived.

What’s so wrong with popping M&M’s after going to the potty? Let’s look at how tangible rewards can backfire on well-meaning parents.

  • Using the potty and later the toilet is expected behavior. We don’t reward our children for learning to walk or eating solid food. Potty training is an essential developmental skill that all kids need and one they will practice forever. You don’t want your child to start holding in pee and poop because they no longer get a reward.
  • Rewards lose their effect. Young kids will soon lose interest in stickers, reward charts, and even candy. When this happens, you may find yourself promising bigger rewards. This can be a slippery slope, and knowing when to draw the line can be challenging. 
  • Daycare. If your child is used to getting candy after going to the potty, they may struggle to transition to a candy-free daycare
  • Weaning rewards. Say you have used rewards, and your child is now using the potty. You stop rewarding them for using the potty because you think it has become an established habit. But is that how your child sees it? What if when you stop rewarding them for using the potty, they stop going? Or they have a tantrum? Weaning your child off potty training rewards can be more of a problem than potty training itself.
  • Confuses the message. When you reward your child for using the potty, you can create confusion about the act itself. Your child will learn to go to the potty because they want the reward rather than listening to their bodily cues. Going to the toilet is not about receiving something but releasing something (if you get my meaning).
  • Short-term solution. Most parents want to raise confident, independent children who are positive and willing to learn. When a child is intrinsically motivated and has a growth mindset, that is precisely what will happen. But when you offer rewards for using the potty, they are extrinsically motivated. They may use the potty in the short term because they want an external reward. But potty training is a long game, and you want your child to recognize their bodily cues and use the toilet independently.
Toddler sitting on potty next to her dad

9 Rewards and Alternatives to Consider

A reward system for potty training can include non-tangible things that can help your child become intrinsically motivated to use the potty.

#1 Verbal Praise and Positive Reinforcement

Our kids want to make us happy and proud, so verbal praise and positive reinforcement is the most powerful option for long-term potty training success. Be specific in your praise. 

Rather than saying, “Good job,” say something like, “Well done for listening to your body and using the potty.”

#2 Toilet Story-Time

Have a basket of books your child can read while on the potty. You can include popular potty training stories you can read with your child during potty time.

#3 Offer Choices

Toddlers seek independence and autonomy, so offer your child choices regarding the potty.  

For example, “Would you like to read this book or that book while you are on the potty?” or “Would you like to put the potty next to the toilet or against the wall?.” 

It’s important that the choice always ends with your child on the potty.

#4 Accountability Activity

Stickers can motivate young children, but a token system doesn’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an accountability chart in the bathroom. 

You can have a fun background design of mountains, a forest, or the seaside. Your child can place appropriately-themed stickers on the picture when they successfully use the potty.

Boy sitting on toilet smiling

#5 Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are another effective non-reward potty training approach. When your child feels wet and uncomfortable after an accident and has to help clean up, they will be more motivated to use the potty.

#6 Hand Stamp

Get your toddler a hand stamp. You can keep it in the bathroom, and when they successfully use the potty, they can give themselves a stamp on the hand or wherever they choose. So it’s important that they stamp as this gives them a feeling of pride and independence.

#7 Buying Underwear

Explain to your child that once they have successfully used the potty for a week or two, they can go with you to the store to pick out underwear. Although this is a reward, it is also a practical next step in the potty training journey.

#8 Potty Toy Basket

Wrap some small toys and place them in a basket. Each time your child successfully uses the potty, they can unwrap a toy, play with it, and put it back in the basket. The initial unwrapping can motivate your child in those early stages of potty training. They can continue to play with the toys after a successful potty visit.

#10 Emotion Chart

For your child to feel intrinsically motivated to use the potty, it’s important to tap into their emotions about the situation. Have an emotion chart in the bathroom, and after they have successfully used the potty, you can say, “Well done. I’m so proud of you. How do you feel?” 

When they link feelings of excitement and happiness with going to the potty, the chances of long-term success are higher.

Finding the Right Reward System for Potty Training Your Toddler

If M&M’s are your potty training go-to and they work, that’s fantastic. But, if you are a parent who wants to avoid candy and other bribe-like options, there are reward alternatives. 

The most important thing to remember is that how you choose to approach potty training is no one else’s business. Instead, you need to find a system that works for you and your child.

Caitlin Van Wyk

About The Author

Caitlin van Wyk is a freelance parenting writer who lives in South Africa with her partner and two wild boys. As a writer and mother, she is passionate about helping parents navigate the joys and chaos of parenthood. Find out more about Caitlin at caitlinvanwyk.com

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