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Should we use rewards?
You may be familiar with the story of the parents who promised their preschooler a trip to Disneyland if he would start using the toilet. The next day, the story goes, the child was fully trained and standing by the front door with his suitcase packed.
While it's true that incentives can help motivate children in certain circumstances, they tend to work best when a child needs an extra little push to do something she's almost ready to do on her own. A preschooler in the beginning stages of potty training usually doesn't have the skills or self-motivation necessary to become trained just to earn a prize. But if your child almost always remembers to use the potty when she's playing in her bedroom and forgets to go only when she's playing outdoors, for example, the promise of a treat for staying dry may give her the extra impetus to come inside when she feels the urge.
What kinds of incentives are best?
First of all, let's understand the difference between a reward and a bribe. The territory here can get a bit fuzzy, but the essential difference is this: A reward follows the behavior you're trying to reinforce, and a bribe precedes it. Bribery has its place occasionally, but in general we all feel better about being rewarded than about being bribed. Also, rewards should be given as soon as possible after the noble deed to make a firm association between the behavior and the treat.
Some 3- and 4-year-olds can be tempted to use the potty if offered a treat afterward. Stickers, small prizes, or an extra cookie at snacktime may work well if your child is ready to be potty trained anyway. The treat motivates a child to keep practicing skills that might otherwise be less interesting to her.
Some parents begin by offering a treat for simply sitting on the potty, then later offer a treat only if the child actually pees or poops. Otherwise, some children will run to the potty every half hour and sit for a few minutes just to get another cookie.
What kinds of rewards don't work?
Avoid using rewards to extract a promise from your preschooler that needs to be kept far in the future, meaning more than two minutes from now. Lines such as "If we stop at the toy store on the way home to get you that doll, you have to promise to use the toilet this afternoon" or "If I let you wear your party dress without a diaper, you have to promise me you won't have any accidents" probably won't do much good. It's useless to ask a young child to stick to a promise for the future in exchange for something she wants in the moment. A preschooler can understand only the feelings, wants, and desires she is having now. She can promise a parent anything, but at this age she shouldn't be expected to keep a promise, no matter what she says. Don't punish your young child for saying she'll do something later and then refusing. She means well, but her promise just isn't a binding contract yet.