Toilet Training

Although nearly every human learns to control the time and place of urination and defecation, there is considerable historical and cultural variation in this training. The individual's control of these bodily functions carries psychological importance, as the child's body can become the site of a power struggle between the child and the adult caretakers. Children are socialized to surrender to society this particular control over their bodies, and to some anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas (Natural Symbols, 1970), the body serves as a powerful symbol of society, including the important cultural categories clean and dirty. As "dirt" of a special sort, human urine and feces are treated in variable ways that reveal a great deal about the culture. The very phrase toilet training, signals the tendency of most Western societies to treat urine and feces as dirty, dangerous materials that must be disposed of safely.

There are few historical references to the training of these bodily functions until the rise of published advice literature, usually written by physicians, in the seventeenth century. In general, the trend over time has been for the advice literature to recommend increasingly permissive approaches to socializing the child, including the early regimes of feeding and toilet training. In the British American colonies, for example, the literature advised parents to make toilet training early and rigorous, a matter of exerting adult will on the willful child. By the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the effect of ENLIGHTENMENT thinking was to get parents to see child training as a rational (rather than a necessarily moral) process. Structure and rigid scheduling dominated the child-training regime of the first half of the nineteenth century, but in the latter half the increasing separation in the middle class between the public sphere and the private, domestic sphere, coupled with the increasing responsibility of women for the domestic sphere, led to gentler methods. Still, by modern standards, toilet training well into the early twentieth century stressed structure, regularity, and early onset.

By the early twentieth century, SIGMUND FREUD's ideas about socializing the anal system and about the consequences of events creating anal fixation provided a possible rationale for taking a different approach toward toilet training, though behaviorism, best represented by JOHN B. WATSON, still dominated the advice literature. Behaviorism recognized the child's strong drives and desires and aimed to socialize those desires through consistent, structured training. But by the 1940s, the advice literature assumed a less willful, driven child and advocated a more relaxed, permissive approach to toilet training. Dr. BENJAMIN SPOCK's bestselling book, Baby and Child Care (1946), went even further, warning that parental anxiety about toilet training can cause more problems than a relaxed, permissive regime that recognized children's individuality and variability. The advice literature since Spock has remained permissive with regard to toilet training.

While the authors of child-training advice literature did not generally adopt Freudian thinking about the relationships between anal socialization and later adult personality, some psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists employed psychoanalytic theory in the 1940s and 1950s in trying to understand "group character." One such interdisciplinary project was Whiting and Child's 1953 use of ethnographic reports on seventy-five primitive societies and an American middle-class sample to test specific hypotheses about the relationships between child-training practices (including the socialization of the anal system) and adult customs and traits, and another was Miller and Swanson's 1958 attempts to correlate child-training practices (including toilet training), social class status, and adult personality traits. Interdisciplinary inquiry of this sort disappeared in the 1960s, when group character studies fell into disrepute.

In comparative cultural studies, the researchers found a wide range of practices in anal training. The median age for beginning serious toilet training, for example, was two years of age, with half of the societies beginning as early as age one and a few (e.g., the Bena of Africa) waiting until the child was nearly five. Middle-class American practices tended toward the early extreme in the 1930s through 1950s samples, typically beginning toilet training at six months. Similarly, while there was a wide range of cultural practices regarding the severity of anal training in those studies, the American mothers tended to be quite severe.

Historians have noted the impact of changes in material culture and technology upon toilet training. Gideon's 1948 and Ogle's 1996 histories of household technology recount this revolution and its connections to social history. The invention and wide availability of household washing machines, for example, made the laundering of cloth diapers less onerous, possibly contributing to the relaxation of mothers' distress over dirty diapers, and the invention and inexpensive availability of disposable diapers made the chore that much easier. This is also a factor in explaining why the emphasis on toilet training relaxed faster in the United States than it did in Europe. Similarly, the invention of the zipper, replacing buttons, and then of Velcro fasteners, replacing zippers, has made it much easier for children to disrobe quickly and to get on the toilet when the urge of urination or a bowel movement comes to them. Toilet training in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has seen the commercial availability of a range of child-sized portable toilets and toilet seats, along with picture and reading books aimed at making toilet training less intimidating and even "fun" for children.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Diapers and Toileting.


Giedion, Siegfried. 1948. Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, Julia. 1998. Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Miller, Daniel R., and Guy E. Swanson. 1958. The Changing American Parent: A Study in the Detroit Area. New York: Wiley.

Ogle, Maureen. 1996. All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Whiting, John, and Irvin L. Child. 1953. Child Training and Personality: A Cross-Cultural Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.