Using the Potty…and other things my 3-year-old knows how to do but won’t.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard parents say, “But he KNOWS how to do this. He just won’t.”

I’ve even begun to think this same thought for a whole slew of things my daughter knows how to do…

going to the potty

cleaning up toys

washing hands

brushing teeth

how to touch the baby without squeezing his face…

But she doesn’t do these things all the time. And for some of them, she doesn’t even do it most of the time.

This can be frustrating, I know. Oh I definitely know.

It’s like, as soon as our child demonstrates she knows how to do something, we automatically expect her to do it, or do it that way, every time. And when she doesn’t? We lose our patience much more easily. We throw blame and shame into the mix:

“But you know better.” 

“You know how to do this. No excuses.”

“You’ve done this before…you can do it now.”

But to be honest, no. She doesn’t know how to do it all the time. Just because she knows how to use the bathroom doesn’t mean she’s going to be successful at choosing to go when she should to avoid an accident. It doesn’t mean that she’s not going to need some help wiping. She may forget a step, like flushing. Or she may get sidetracked or excited and run out of the bathroom without washing her hands.

Just because she knows how to wash her hands doesn’t mean she’s going to remember each time to use soap after getting distracted by playing in the water. It doesn’t mean she’s going to remember to turn the water off.

And just because she knows that we touch the baby “softly, slowly” doesn’t mean she’s not going to get excited and show him love in the loud, in-your-face, smothering way she has.

She’s three. I cannot expect her to know how to do something just because she’s demonstrated it once, or even a bunch of times. Or because I say it to her over and over again.

Her brain is still developing. She’s still very much a baby, in so many ways. It’s hard to remember this when she’s using words like “ridiculous” and inventing her own stories and characters and friends and talking a mile a minute. It’s hard to remember this when she’s doing so many other things on her own, like pushing her step stool over to the counter to reach the chocolate pieces or crackers, or taking off her shirt and pants to put on her princess dress.

That part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that handles logical thinking, decision-making, planning, focusing attention/ignoring distractions is still very underdeveloped. Knowing this, how could I expect my tiny 3-year-old to always know the right way to do something at the moment I expect her to know it? How can I expect her to not get sidetracked by something that catches her interest? How can I expect her to be able to reign in her emotions when she is not developmentally ready to do that?

On my good days, when I can remember these things, I find myself much more patient with her. I encourage her to listen to her body when she’s doing the potty dance, and I remind her that it’s no fun having an accident. Then I offer my help. “Come on, I’ll go with you.” I help her with the process, even though I know she knows how to do everything. Then I wash my hands first, without saying anything…just modeling the actions and then moving aside to let her step up and do it.

When she gets excited and throws her arms around her brother and then her hands go to his face, I remove them, saying (for the thousandth time) “softly, slowly…when we’re near the baby.”

She needs the reminders, the gentle guidance, the reinforcing words…not the shaming. Of course she knows how do to lots of things. But that doesn’t mean she’s able to all of the time. It doesn’t mean she never needs or wants me to help or be there. And that’s ok.