Humanity’s Surprising Variety of Approaches to Toilet Training

By Alma Gottlieb

(This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here with photos. This article has also been published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons in Sapiens.)

Are 2-year-olds too young to start toilet training?

For many children, yes. Especially boys. At least, that’s what American pediatricians would likely say. Nowadays, only around half of children in the U.S. are fully toilet trained by age 3.

Chinese grandmothers would be appalled. They’d likely point out that with “split pants,” most kids are trained by age 2. This traditional wardrobe item features an opening along the crotch seam, allowing children to urinate and defecate freely without soiling their clothes. These garments remain the pants style of choice for toddlers living in the Chinese countryside.

Parenting advice about divergent toilet-training methods (not to mention plenty of other child-rearing questions) is typically dished out as if it were the only reasonable, reliable option. Nowadays, parents are confronted with guidance claimed to be scientifically founded, and presented as relevant to all children, even when different strategies are in direct conflict with each other. With over 2,000 parenting advice books in print in English—and, along with so many parenting blogs, there’s even a parody of the genre—it’s easy to see why many modern parents feel confused about how to raise their children.

As an anthropologist, I’ve been studying child-rearing practices around the world for 25 years. Living with my husband (writer Philip Graham) in small villages in the rainforest of West Africa for extended periods convinced me that we humans are a resilient species, able to thrive in so many distinctive settings. Discovering the incredible diversity of ways to raise children inspired us to rethink and change some of our own family’s child-rearing practices (around bed-sharing, independence, and household tasks, for instance).

There’s no one-size-fits-all model of child-rearing advice for all the world’s parents. To spread this message, my colleagues and I collaborated on the book A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies, based on our own and others’ long-term ethnographic fieldwork in places ranging from Israel and the Palestinian territories to China, Portugal, Peru, Denmark, Ivory Coast, and a Somali-American community in Minneapolis. By presenting multiple solutions to the commonest challenges facing parents, we hope to provide a bit of a tonic for parents, to assure them that there’s more than one path to raising a well-adjusted child.

Toilet training from birth?

So, why do parents choose a given child-rearing practice? Often, it comes down to money and availability. Let’s revisit that question about toilet training.

In Ivory Coast, Beng mothers begin training their infants’ bowels a few days after birth. They administer enemas twice daily, beginning the day a newborn’s dried-out umbilical cord stump drops off. By the time the little one is a few months old, caregivers shouldn’t have to worry about him pooping during the day at all.

What could account for such a seemingly extreme practice? For one thing, disposable diapers are unavailable in Beng villages—and throughout much of the global south. Moreover, even if they were sold in local markets, few subsistence-farming families could afford them. (And the planet can’t afford them, either. Environmentalists calculate that “disposable” diapers constitute the third-largest single consumer item in landfills, and their production requires some 7 billion gallons of oil each year.)

But availability and affordability tell only part of the story. The structure of labor plus deep-seated values also shape parents’ choices.

In Ivory Coast (as elsewhere across sub-Saharan Africa), Beng babies spend most of their days attached to someone’s back. Often, that someone is not the mother—who is working in her fields, producing crops to feed her large family. Beng society (unlike traditional Chinese society) also rates all feces (including those of babies) as disgusting, and the thought of a baby pooping on someone’s back produces revulsion.

Given the local attitude toward feces, no potential babysitter would take care of a child likely to poop on her back while being carried. Hence, starting potty training from birth aims to help a mother get her farm work done. In that sense, early toilet training promotes an adequate food supply for a mother’s family.

A Western observer might shrink in horror from this practice, imagining long-lasting emotional maladjustments from early trauma. But, discounting the ravages of poverty that challenge health and deny educational and economic opportunity, these very early toilet-trained babies appear to grow into just as happy and well-adjusted adults as diaper-wearing children might become.

Context counts for what works

In motivation, this practice may not even be as exotic as it might appear to a non-Beng reader. In the U.S., women’s labor needs may also dictate potty-training schedules, albeit with a later timeline. Many day care centers accept only children who are fully potty trained. If a working mother lacks both in-home day care options and babysitting relatives, she may work frantically to potty train her toddler as soon as possible, so she may return to full-time paid work.

For stay-at-home moms, or working moms who have nearby relatives to care for their child, different life situations may dictate toilet-training decisions. In the Palestinian territories, for instance, many women start toilet training around 14 or 15 months. They’re able to start early because they aren’t working outside the home, so they have the time. On the other hand, a Palestinian working woman may start toilet training later, maybe around age 2. In this case, women in the extended family (hamula) would care for the child while the mother worked, so no day care rule compels early toilet training.

Once we explore the local context of people’s daily lives, seemingly exotic or even abusive practices—split pants, infant enemas—suddenly seem far less so. Opening the minds of worried new parents to “other” ways of raising children may assuage fears that if they fail to “do the right thing,” their children will be doomed. Through exploring comparative commode customs, along with many other parenting practices, it’s clear there are many “right ways” to raise a child.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

CALL FOR EDITED BOOK – Youth in Africa: Agents of Change

YOUTH IN AFRICA: AGENTS OF CHANGE 

Have you witnessed the power of youth as positive agents of change in Africa? Have you been part of a youth-led initiative or been working with young people to bring peace and prosperity to your community in Africa? Would you like to share your stories with a wide audience through a publication? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes” this may be the opportunity you have been looking for to share about the great contributions that youth make to their communities.

What will the book be about? 

We aim to publish a book showing that youth not only represent a demographic issue, with its social, economic and political challenges, but also represent a positive force of change and an opportunity for Africa. Youth already engage in positive social change but their contributions are rarely documented and visible. The book aims to illustrate how youth are contributing to their societies by engaging in projects towards more democratic and fair societies.

The book will consist of 10 to 15 chapters organized in three parts:

1) Youth in Africa,

2) Youth in the African public political discourse, and,

3) Youth as agents of social change in Africa (selected case studies).

The book will be edited by Obi Peter and Celina Del Felice in English and Spanish, with the support of Casa Africa (www.casafrica.es, Spain) and published by Los Libros de la Catarata, Madrid, Spain (https://www.catarata.org/).

Why a book on this topic? 

Often, youth are perceived as victims or trouble-makers. This book aims to challenge and at the same time complete this picture by uncovering a reality that is often hidden. It aims to bring into focus young people who are positive agents of change. It will do so by describing examples in which young people, despite being victims in some cases, decide to engage in proactive and peaceful actions. There is a need to bring these stories to light.

Why should you apply to become a contributor? 

  • The opportunity to write about your own work or the work of other young people and inspire others in Africa and beyond.
  • To develop your writing and analytical skills in the topic by participating in an international group process of peer-to-peer learning. You will receive technical support and valuable feedback from editors and peers.
  • Networking and sharing of information with experts in the field.
  • Contributing to youth policy debates and support youth-led initiatives in Africa.

How to participate? 

To participate and be selected as a contributor, please send an expression of interest/motivation statement, a brief 1 or 2 page description of the chapter that you propose, along with your CV to [email protected] and [email protected] by 28 February 2018. [Apparently deadline has been extended to 15 March]

Your expression of interest and proposal shall detail the following:

  • Your personal motivation to this topic.
  • Indicate to which part of the book you want to contribute and briefly describe what the chapter will consist of. Parts of the book include:

1) Youth in Africa. 

This part aims to offer a definition of the concept of youth, its meanings in different contexts/regions of the continent and describe the social, economic, educational situation of youth. More conceptual and analytical chapters are welcome from sociological, economic, political, legal or anthropological perspectives.

2) Youth in the African public political discourse. 

This part aims to explain how the topic of “youth” has emerged in national and regional political discourses and (youth) policies. Chapters analysing particular countries or regional policies are welcome.

3) Youth as agents of social change in Africa. 

This part will consist of chapters describing and analysing cases of youth-led initiatives or organisations. Please, explain why you think the initiative you propose to describe makes a valuable contribution to peace and prosperity in Africa, if possible, indicate whether you have or could include testimonies and evidence of the social impact of the projects. Indicate the geographical location of the activities and the period in which these took place (for example, months/years)

  • Please be sure to also include in your proposal your full contact details (Your full name, country of origin and residence, gender, date of birth, e-mail, Skype id, telephone, full address, city and country).

Conditions 

  • Only one chapter will be allowed per author.
  • One contribution can be signed by several authors.
  • Chapters must be original and unpublished.
  • Chapters can be submitted in English, Spanish, French or Portuguese. Note that the publication will be in English and Spanish only.
  • Each chapter should be between 4000 and 6000 words, including bibliography and be submitted in word format.

Criteria for selecting authors 

  • Commitmentto write a full chapter, between 4.000 and 6.000 words by May 2018 in collaboration with the editors. Authors must be open to receive and take into consideration feedback for improvement.
  • Quality of the chapter proposal:Originality, clarity, robustness of the evidence supporting the arguments made and engagement with up-to-date or/and academic literature will be appreciated. We welcome chapters from any perspective or academic discipline (practitioner/youth worker/academic). In the case of a chapters for part 3 (Youth as agents of social change in Africa), you must explain clearly the reasons why you think the chosen youth-led initiative is worth-writing about, or in other words, why is it special in terms of its impact and its contribution to fairer and more peaceful communities.
  • Thematic balance. We aim to have different types of youth-led initiatives described working in different social issues (civic and peace education, social and political democratic participation, de-radicalisation and prevention of violent extremism, gender equality, youth empowerment, health, humanitarian and environmental projects)
  • Geographical representation. We aim to have case studies and insights from different regions of Africa in an attempt to illustrate the great diversity of the continent.
  • Gender balance. We aim to have gender balance of authors. Female authors are encouraged to apply.

What will happen if your proposal is selected? 

  • Selected contributors will be contacted on 9 March 2018.
  • Draft essays to be submitted by31 March 2018.
  • Feedback for improvement from editors sent by15 April 2018.
  • Final chapters to be submitted by30 May 2018. Note that if final chapters are not complete or submitted on time, they may not be included in this edition.

For more information, please, do not hesitate to contact us:

Celina Del Felice ([email protected]) Celina is an educator and researcher in the fields of conflict and peace studies youth work and peace education. She works for The Network University, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya-UNITAR Master in Conflictology and the University for Peace. Celina is from Argentina, living in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain.