Potty training in the US has been a back-and-forth shifting of attitudes from strict and rigorous to flexible and forgiving again. The attitudes and predominant child-rearing philosophy of the day dictated societal expectations for parents and the methods they employed in potty training their children. Infant Care, the U.S. Children’s Bureau guide to child care, published in 1914 recommended that toilet training begin by three months of age, yet mothers were warned not to make their baby tense or it would make matters worse. Mothers were expected to be gentle, laugh, and ensure the baby was relaxed, and never scolded the child.
By 1921, Behaviorism was the rage, and everything in infancy was thought to be mechanically learned. Suddenly, there was no more laughter, and there was no more talk of relaxation. In their place, there was rigor, firmness, and discipline. The predominant child-rearing book of the day was the 1932 work by Frederic H. Barlett, The Care and Feeding of Infants, in which child rearing, as dictated by experts, had gone from indulgence and sentimentality to a task that should be conducted without mercy. Babies should no longer be babied and should be bent to parental will. The book implored parents: “If you can, start training your infant to have a bowel movement in the chamber each morning at the age of one month. … Place the chamber on your lap … and hold the infant over it. … Insert about two inches into the rectum, a tapered soap stick, and keep it there for 3 to 5 minutes… The movement will usually occur under this stimulus. If you keep this up with regularity, a daily bowel movement will probably result.”
Within two decades conventional wisdom would shift once again, this shift due to the influence of Freudism which explained babies were said to take deep sensual pleasure in vacating their bowels, and parents who toilet-trained too early were inhibiting the ability of their children to experience pleasure. Too early toilet training posed the risk of permanent lifelong damage and in extreme cases, one becomes parsimonious, stingy, meticulous, punctual, and tied down with petty self-restraints.
A decade later anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer attributed the Japanese character of kamikaze pilots to the loose and free attitudes toward early toilet training of Japanese infants. However, the prevailing philosophy for many decades until the present has insisted on flexible, positive reinforcement without scolding or punishment and seems to be well-planted in the mindset of Americans and will remain the predominant philosophy for years to come.