Potty Training vs. Consumerism, or: How I Learned to Stop Buying Crap While Teaching My Child to Crap in a Potty
Potty training can be tricky. As a parent and a preschool teacher, I know this. God, do I know this. Throw in even a modicum of thought about consumerism and capitalism, and what do you get? A total mindf*ck, that’s what.
Go to almost any child development expert for potty-training advice and they inevitably say something like: When your child shows signs of ‘readiness’, take her to the store and let her pick out her own big-girl underpants and her own potty. This will give her a sense of ownership, pride, and control over the process.
I get why the experts say this, but then again, WHY DO THEY SAY THIS?
You’re a good parent and you want to do right by your child. Empowerment, guided choices, all that. And you can’t wait for your child to get out of diapers.
So you follow the advice. You find yourself standing in the (gender-segregated) kids’ underwear section of Target. Your child is illicitly standing, not sitting, in the red cart because you’re smart enough to choose your battles.
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You’re trying to get him not to stand on the cute mudcloth pillows you threw in your cart. You don’t really need the pillows, but they were on a limited-time-only endcap, so. I mean. Mudcloth.
You’re sucking down a Starbucks coffee like it’s a lifeline. Your precious toddler sways unsteadily in the cart. He’s choosing between ten different packs of Star Wars underpants (never mind that you haven’t let him see Star Wars yet because … parenting).
Underpants, check. Off to the potty aisle. Some potties have flashing lights and noises but you are way too savvy a parent to fall into that battery-sucking trap.
But then. You have this flash from beyond. A Moment of Clarity.
What is the bigger message I am sending my child?
Or maybe that was just me. Anyone else? Anyone?
I stood there, headachey under fluorescent lights and along came that horrified, sinking feeling I so often get at Target. It’s an overwhelmed, existential, surrounded-by-too-much-stuff, spending-too-much-money dread.
Buying stuff for potty training?
Did I really want to convey to my child that when he’s ready to do something natural, worthwhile, intrinsically rewarding — and something that all humans eventually do, we should GO TO THE STORE and BUY STUFF? New, shiny stuff that costs actual dollars? Stuff that is manufactured under questionable circumstances, using God-knows-what raw materials from the Earth, then transported halfway around the world?
Holy crapmuffins. What kind of message to children is that? What kind of advice for parents is that? Capitalist, consumerist advice. The kind you’d get in an Adam Smith free-market parenting book, if Adam Smith wrote a parenting book. That’s what kind.
So. I grabbed my coffee and put the pillows on the nearest shelf (sorry, Target staff), turned the cart around and we left the store without buying anything.
Okay that’s a lie. Obviously I bought stuff. I’d already bought myself an unnecessary and expensive coffee, plus have you ever gone to Target with a two-year-old? Reader, if you can leave that money trap without buying your toddler something you are a parenting ninja. I bought him a carton of Goldfish crackers. But we didn’t buy the underwear or a potty. Or those pillows.
Instead we went home and I rethought my life choices.
I got my hands on a simple, second-hand potty from the local kids consignment store and some plain, non-Star Wars undies. We got Once Upon a Potty (for Boys) from the library. Sam figured out he intricacies of potty-training quite well in his own time, thankyouverymuch.
(I still wish I got those pillows.)
I got to thinking about the other buy-stuff messages I unconsciously give Sam. And myself.
Like when I say, “Ooh! Look at this really cool NEW toy you have! Isn’t it awesome?” I’m equating new with exciting.
When you make that equation -- New = Exciting— you’re done for.Because it will never end, wanting something new. It’s the basis of consumerism, addictive and unfulfilling. It’s a curse for children and the planet. And just about everyone I know has this addiction. Me, most of all.
Sometimes, often, I just really want stuff. Especially when I’m exhausted and have Too Much To Do. Which seems like every day that ends with ‘y’.
I am a smart, grown-ass woman, yet I still think that a new moisturizer will be just the thing for my wrinkles. Somehow my skin will go from slack and stretch-marked to Heidi-Klum tight. Or a new sweater will make going to work just a little more pleasant. (It doesn’t even have to be new, just new-to-me. I’m cultivating a nasty Thred-Up addiction, y’all.) Or that a Starbucks coffee is the little treat / jumpstart I need on a bad day. Honestly, I blame growing up on Seventeen magazine. And U.S. culture in general.
When I want to buy something, when Sam wants to get something, I need to cool my funions and remember something important:
We are souls (sweet, bad-ass, precious souls) in need of connection; we are not just Ayn Randian individuals who need to accumulate stuff.
My mom gave me a book awhile ago, The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life (InterVarsity Press, 2006), because she’s that kind of mom. And yes, I get the irony of buying a book about not needing to accumulate things. Shush, I’m trying to make a point here.
In The Contented Soul, author Lisa Graham McMinn posits that, historically, humans saw ourselves primarily as spiritual beings. Somewhere around the time of the Magna Carta, we shifted to an individual rights paradigm. Now, in our post-modern age, McMinn thinks we identify primarily as consumers.
From souls, to individuals, to consumers. It’s a fascinating theory, if problematic — I truly doubt that antebellum slaveholders concerned themselves with African-Americans’ souls OR their individual rights.
But it’s worth asking: Am I trying to meet a soul-level need by buying stuff? Am I greeting parenting milestones with the idea that we need to go to Target?
Um. Of-f*cking-course I do not feel fully content from making a purchase. Quite the opposite. (Or if I do feel satisfied, it’s fleeting. It doesn’t last.) You can’t satisfy a deep human need by acquiring new stuff, no matter how cute the pillow or perfect the potty.
Perhaps the true longing is to create (or renew) connection: to family, to friends, to community, to our own souls, and to something greater than ourselves.
Ultimately, too, consumerism isn’t just acquisitiveness. It’s about consuming. Which doesn’t only mean buying things; it means taking in more than I give out. It’s that icky feeling I get when I watch too much TV, when I eat a sh*tty food bar instead of sitting down to a decent meal, when I drive if I could walk instead. It’s all the things that give me that feeling of Targetsential dread.
Consumption is that which distracts me from the real work — and joy — of life: connection, creation, service.
So, yeah. The opposite of consumption is creation: giving, generating, being generous. Connecting to myself and others. For me it’s walking, yoga, writing, sharing dinners, playing board games, spending time with friends, making stuff, gardening, voting, camping, marching in protests, sending letters, going slow, reading good books, meditating.
The goal is to put out a bit more than I take in on a daily basis. Not waaay more — I don’t want to deplete my energy — just a little more. That happy balance: I know when it happens. The days when I give Sam my full attention for a chunk of time instead of half-listening most the day. The days when I am truly present at work. When I eat well, when I poke around my garden, when I really listen to my husband, when I exercise, when I write a new chapter of my novel — when I fall into bed tired and with a content heart. That, to me, is the opposite of consumerism. That is valuing creation more than consumption.
That’s what I want to teach Sam.
A wise friend told me that discipline is remembering what you want.
What I want: creation, connection, service. Instead of stuff. I want this for the Earth. For my family, global and local. For myself.
No more Targetsential dread.
An earlier, more polite version of this piece was published in the March 2011 online edition of Friends Journal: Quaker Thought and Life Today.
Cross posted on Medium: https://medium.com/@jjjohnsonauthor/potty-training-vs-537c3cae3800
j.j. johnson, author