Hey, kids — time to potty!
In only five hours, the Potty Whisperer can train almost any child
SUSAN MOHAMMAD | July 9, 2008 |
Some call her Superwoman. Others jokingly refer to her as the Potty Nazi. But after toilet training over 500 toddlers at the "booty camp" she runs out of her kitchen in the suburbs of Chicago, Wendy Sweeney is known in many parenting circles as, simply, the Potty Whisperer.
Sweeney's "camp" — which, she claims, has a 98 per cent success rate — consists of a five-hour session, and costs US$250. When students first enter her home, they are told to put on underwear and trash their diapers. "We don't need these anymore," she declares. Children are each assigned their own potty station. Then, Sweeney offers them a range of snacks to eat while they run around and play — like Cheetos, Skittles and pop. "It's not a diet I would normally recommend," says Sweeney, who is a part-time nurse at a pediatric hospital and a mother of six. The salty snacks draw water into the bowels, she says, while the sugary sodas, which don't quench thirst, ensure that kids will drink plenty.
During the session, students are repeatedly instructed: "If you need to go, go in the potty." Parents are there, but they're expected to stay quiet — a wrenching experience for some, considering this is a class in which kids are expected to clean up their own poop if they don't do as they're told. But the goal, she says, is to transfer responsibility for the toddler's body from parent to child.
These days, Sweeney's classes are filling up like soggy diapers. "I have people flying in from all over the country, from California, New York and Florida," she says. She is even fielding calls from Canadian parents seeking advice. Her philosophy is based on Nathan Azrin's book Toilet Training in Less Than a Day. Children must be 2Â½ years old in order to be admitted into the camp — any younger, she says, and they usually can't grasp what she's teaching. "When we reward or scold, we always focus on the behaviour, not the child," says Sweeney of her approach. She builds up self-esteem with praise and encouragement, and rewards kids with treats for following instructions.
The importance of "listening to your body" is repeated like a mantra. "I think accidents are good because that's how we learn," she says, adding she often works through screaming, biting or crying tantrums that may last up to 45 minutes after a sugar-crash. Most of the tantrums are waged by children who have been asked to clean up the business they've left on the kitchen floor, she says, and who are used to their parents simply doing it for them. "I tell them the accidents happened because they didn't listen to their body," she says. "This way, we are teaching them to be responsible for themselves."
Most parents arrive skeptical, Sweeney says, but leave more aware of how to set realistic expectations. Still, not everyone agrees with the idea of outsourcing parental duties. "Sounds like someone is cashing in on the current frenzy to be a perfect parent," says Linda Cameron, an early childhood development expert who works at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. While Cameron says she would like to know more about Sweeney's methods, she feels rewarding children with treats could lead them to make improper associations, and cause them to expect the same from their parents. She also equated doling out treats and a ribbon for using the potty with "competitive pooing." She suggests toilet training should be a more relaxed and private process, done in one's own home.
Cameron is not surprised, however, that a service like this would be popular. "Parents want their child to be trained by somebody else in a short space of time because we are so busy," she says, "and we feel we have to get parenting right." Also, parents may hire an "expert" because they feel ill-equipped to deal with the process, since knowledge was traditionally passed down by other parents within a community.
In addition to booty camp, Sweeney's website offers phone consultations and "private potty parties" where a child can learn with four of her own friends for US$1,250. Despite what critics think, and occasionally being squirted with pee, Sweeney says she does this because she knows she makes a positive difference. "At the end of the day, parents thank me and the kids come to me saying they still like me. If I was just cashing in for the money, I'd charge more — because I'm exhausted."