Another behavior that indicates growing autonomy is the push for self-help skills. How the adults respond to this and to the exploring behavior will determine to some extent the child’s adult behavior. Children who aren’t allowed to touch or to try things on their own get a message about their own capabilities. When restricted to an extreme, they can lose their curiosity, their willingness to take risks, and their drive to be independent of others and do things for themselves.

When independence is a strong cultural priority, the first stirrings of it prompt adults to begin to encourage and facilitate it. However, in some cultures interdependence is the priority, and signs of independence may trigger a push on the part of the adult to work harder to promote the cultural goal. For example, in Japan some parents find their children too independent from the start, so they begin right away giving lessons in dependence. The goal is to help children see themselves as connected, not separate. When at about 9 months of age children begin to assert themselves—pushing away the adult hand trying to feed them, for example—the lessons in interdependence intensify. The specific objective is to teach children to accept help graciously, even if they can do it for themselves.

Sometimes adults share responsibility for the same child, and one pushes independence while the other struggles against the same behaviors. These two adults may be parents in a cross-cultural marriage, or teacher and parent. If they are in disagreement about their goals and priorities for the child, they need to sit down and talk about their differences. It’s hard on a child to have two conflicting approaches to deal with.

Self-Feeding.

Take, for example, self-feeding. The teacher who values independence encourages self-feeding as soon as the baby grabs for the spoon or can pick up a teething biscuit and get it to her mouth. This caregiver gives the baby her own spoon and lets her help, and before long lets her feed herself—as soon as she can get enough in her mouth to count. Also, she cuts up small bits of appropriate finger foods and makes them available for the child to self-feed. Because what this teacher does is considered developmentally appropriate practice among early childhood practitioners, she won’t feel a conflict until she runs into a parent who see things differently.

Some parents have different priorities for toddlers. Self-feeding, in particular, is not a priority for all parents. For some parents, the goal for their children is learning to help others rather than helping oneself. Therefore, they model helping skills by spoon-feeding children into the preschool years. They may justify their actions in a number of ways, including their desire to keep things neat and clean and not waste food, for example. When a teacher and a parent see something like self-feeding from very different perspectives, arguments and angry feelings can result.

It’s important as a family-support person that you not get into arguments about your different perspectives, but work on your relationship with the family and practice good communication skills so you can work out differences together. See Strategy Box for some ideas about how to work through conflicts.

Toilet Training and Learning.

Toileting toddlers is another area where values of independence and interdependence can collide. Just as no culture produces adults who are unable to feed themselves, no matter how late they start, no culture produces adults unable to toilet themselves. But the approach and the timing are different depending on whether you believe in toilet training or toilet learning, which can be related to whether your stress is independence or interdependence.

When most professionals discuss toilet learning, they consider it from the independence perspective. Their advice is to watch for signs of readiness, which fall into three general categories: physical, intellectual, and emotional. Physical readiness means the ability to hold on and let go. A first sign is when children go for longer and longer periods with a dry diaper. Physical readiness also is determined by children’s ability to handle their own clothing—pulling down pants, for example. A sign of intellectual readiness is when children tell the adult after eliminating or indicate in other ways that they are aware and can communicate what is happening with their own body. Emotional readiness comes when children show a willingness to use a potty or a toilet instead of diapers. The timing for these signs varies with each individual, but in general they seldom appear before the second birthday.

An adult with a priority of interdependence may look at toileting from an entirely different point of view. This person won’t wait for a child to reach the age of 2 but may start when the child is as young as a few months; some may even start at birth, as they try to “catch” the baby and hold him or her over a potty. Readiness takes on a whole different meaning when the goal is interdependence. This approach emphasizes the training aspect rather than the learning aspect of toileting. It involves a conditioned reflex.

Interestingly enough, a new trend toward early toilet training shows the idea is growing. Instead of being “old fashioned” it’s becoming the latest thing. An article in Twins Magazine by Kahwaty (March/April 2006) explains not only how to train a baby, but how to train two of them at once. The article points out that the United States is a “diaper culture” so babies using potties is a “foreign idea.” The trend even has a name—Infant potty training (IPT) or elimination communication (EC)—and at least one Web site (diaperfreebaby.com).

Professionals in the United States frown on training children during the first year, partly because in the past this approach has sometimes been associated with using harsh methods. It is important to recognize that toilet training differences can be cultural—or not—and that harshness is not necessarily a part of the process. The Twins article warns against using either rewards or punishment, or even showing disappointment if the methods aren’t successful. The article stresses that the adult should be relaxed and not have an opinion about whether the child goes or not.

Here’s how toilet training using a conditioning method works. Timing is crucial. Sometimes the adult can predict based on the baby’s regularity. “Time to hold her over the potty,” says the adult periodically. Also, the adult learns to read subtle body messages that indicate the baby is about to wet or defecate. The baby learns to let the adult know, and the adult trains the baby to let go at a signal—usually a shoosh or a whistling sound. It’s truly amazing to a teacher whose only experience is with toddlers to see how young babies with the help of an adult can manage dry, clean diapers most of the time.

“It’s the adult who’s trained, not the baby!” is a common reaction to this interdependence approach. Teachers who use the learning approach rather than the training approach are sometimes critical of those who train—and vice versa—yet each method works well for the adults and children who are using it. Both approaches eventually result in fully trained children who are able to handle all of their own toileting.

Toilet training or learning can become difficult when the child perceives that his or her autonomy is being usurped and who then fights back. Some children even feel that the adult is depriving them of something that is rightfully theirs—their body products! The resulting power struggle can be ugly and its effects long-lasting. Some children with an unfortunate toileting history may be left with big control issues that pop up in a variety of arenas. But don’t assume that every family who believes in toilet training before the first year uses harshness or force.

When a difference between pottying methods becomes apparent, it is important for the early educator to set aside assumptions and judgments and talk about the differences until each party understands the other.