This is a great question and one that I feel fairly strongly about.
Praise can be communicated in many ways, and depending on the way it’s used, and whether it’s for internally-motivated or externally-motivated behaviors.
Elimination communication and toilet training both involve internally-motivated behaviors.
If your child is externally-motivated to use the potty, to please you or earn a sticker or M&M, then the potential for rebellion and a dysfunctional relationship to toileting is nigh!
Here’s an excerpt from my book about why I no longer praise. I hope it helps you lots:
WHAT TO SAY WHEN YOU CATCH A PEE/POOP
Lots of people have differing opinions on this. Some people praise the baby, some people praise the action, others reflect what they see/saw, others state their pleasure, and still others say nothing.
After much research, experience, and thought, I recommend that you either (1) Reflect & Notice, or (2) Say Nothing. Before I get to those, here’s a bit about why I no longer praise my babies.
WHY I NO LONGER PRAISE
After a catch, I used to praise and [albeit positively] judge. In the beginning, I would excitedly say, “Good peepee/poopoo!” and praise my first baby for going. You can see proof of this in most of the videos I taped before I had this epiphany.
After about 5 months, I reassessed this choice and decided to stop praising and start reflecting. Why? Well, I learned that as we praise children (for anything) they begin to do things to receive our praise and thus become extrinsically motivated. My hopes for my babies are the opposite: I want them to be motivated from within themselves.
Further, when I would say that a peepee is “good,” I implied there is also a “bad” version out there. The child may think, If I don’t do it “right,” am I “bad?” This type of positive or negative language comes across as criticism, even if well-intentioned.
I did not do any permanent damage – my tone was appropriate. We all say “good job,” right? It’s okay sometimes, I guess. But going to the bathroom is a natural process stemming from an inner motivation to take care of one’s hygiene and is not meant to happen out of a motivation to please you.
1. Reflect & Notice
The alternative to praise is reflecting or noticing. This means describing what you see baby do without making a big deal out of it. You can even notice how you feel inside and express that. Some examples of how to notice and reflect are:
“You went pee/poop in the sink.”
“You peed on the carpet. Peepee belongs in the bathroom.”
“You pooped in the potty. I’m excited. That’s where poop goes.”
“You feel relief because you peepeed.”
“What a relief to pee. It feels good to pee outside of your diaper.”
“You went poopoo, ahhhh.” (the noise “Ahhh” reflects the feeling of release)
Even words as simple as “Yay!” or “Wow!” will communicate the satisfaction you feel when she pees in the desired place.
2. Say Nothing
In cultures where infant pottying is the norm, most parents say nothing upon a successful potty. It’s expected that the baby should ask to go pee, and the parent should take her (or that an unspoken intuition should guide it all). It’s not really an exciting event because it is so socially ingrained as part of the “norm” and thus there’s never a big deal made of pottying. It’s a natural given.
Laurie Boucke writes in Infant Potty Training that some parents in intact cultures become upset about a miss in the middle of the kitchen, after the baby is old enough to “know better,” but never do they become upset with the child, nor make her feel wrong. They are only displeased with the activity. This displeasure clearly & honestly demonstrates to the child which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
WHICH WAY IS “CORRECT?
Simply weigh whether you want to raise your child to be intrinsically (reflect or say nothing) or extrinsically (praise) motivated. Many of us have been conditioned to say it, so if “good job” slips out, it probably won’t obliterate baby’s internal desire to do what’s socially expected. But avoid “good boy” or “good girl.”
WHAT YOU COULD SAY AFTER A MISS
If you’ve had a miss (i.e., baby peed before you could offer her the potty), acknowledge that by saying something like, “You peepeed in your pants. Let me know next time, and I will help you put it in the potty.”
Be easy on yourself. It’s not the end of the world if you have a miss. (Remember, EC is all about communication! Not your catch rate.) You want to model the kind of self-love that your baby will have, right? Be nice to Mom/Dad.
Ask yourself, “Now what did Mommy/Daddy learn from that?” The best information is gathered by a miss!
WHAT YOU COULD SAY AFTER A MIS-GUESS
If you have mis-guessed his need to potty (i.e., he didn’t have to go after all), acknowledge that gently. You can say to your baby, “Oh, you don’t need to go peepee after all. Okay.”
Never feel like you have to apologize; you didn’t do anything wrong by offering. So long as you are gentle, open, and non-coercive, you are trying your best.
Next, ask yourself, “Now what did Mommy/Daddy learn from that?” Great information can be gathered from a mis-guess!
GRATITUDE AFTER A CATCH
After a smooth interaction (baby signals, I offer potty, he pees) I often say, “Thank you for letting Mama know you had to go pee.” If it feels right for you to do that, gratitude is an awesome thing to model for your children.
So there you have it. If you want to raise a child who is not using the toilet to please anyone but him- or herself, I highly recommend you avoid praise. Again, this is for internally-motivated behaviors and bodily processes like using the potty during toilet training and elimination communication.
If you do praise, praise the activity or show your joy (I always do! yay!), but do not say “good girl” or “good boy” because that implies that they could be bad if they don’t do it, and the possibility that they will act out against that idea as a 2 or 3 year old is very high! Rebellion may be heightened. But more than anything, it’s manufactured. This type of praise isn’t based on truth. We are not good or bad for using the toilet. We use the toilet to have good hygiene. It’s just what we do. Matter of fact.
Now I’d love to hear from you! In the comments below, please share your thoughts on praise - do you do it, or do you not, and why?
I look forward to speaking with you there!
PS - here’s the video version of this episode in case you prefer to YouTube it. ;)