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Petula Dvorak

Race to the top begins with child's bottom


Every year, Maria Zimmitti fields the panicked calls as summer winds down and the school year looms.

Parents leave frantic messages on her cell phone. They bombard the D.C. child psychologist with e-mails. They need her — now!

What's the Bat Signal for? Pee. But more likely, poop.

Zimmitti is one of the D.C. area's premier potty trainers. And each year she sees a bigger frenzy among parents frantic to potty train their children — fast.

"There are real deadlines," she said, "and the parents are just filled with extreme anxiety."

Maybe that's why the plight of Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso has generated such heated debate. Rosso used every trick on the Internet to try to potty train her 3-year-old to satisfy the requirements of an excellent suburban Montessori preschool.

But the school said the child was having too many accidents and suspended her — an outcome that some decried and others cheered.

Potty training has always been a polarizing topic.

You've got the old-school folks, who took diapers off 1-year-olds and scrambled along behind them with portable potties. There are the nouveau old-schoolers who hold their infants over the toilet every time it looks like they're about to go. Thus, training the parents.

And there's the let-the-child-be-the-guide camp, fueling a multibillion-dollar disposable diaper industry that makes nappies big enough for first-graders.

Most parents are probably somewhere in between, urging kids along with toy incentives or sticker rewards, hoping to get them out of diapers soon but not freaking out if it takes awhile.

But for some, potty training is taking on the gravitas of SAT scores because these days, excrement and academic trajectory have become inexorably intertwined.

To get into some of the most desirable preschools, young scholars have to be in control of their bowels.

"Of course Langdon is potty-trained. He was dry last autumn, just about the time he began his piano lessons and finished with his nonprofit work," the parents promise.

The only problem is that come August, young Langdon may be cool with aiming his firehose at the target-practice Cheerios floating in the toilet bowl but he may not be disturbed yet by the delightfully warm, squishy product in the back of his Pull-Up.

And thus the calls to Zimmitti for help come back-to-school time.

"Usually, it's the poop part that's more difficult," Zimmitti said.

The years before kindergarten are no longer a time to chase worms in the garden. As universal pre-K nearly becomes the standard nationwide and preschools talk more about their academic philosophy than their playground, parents are trying to get their kids into the right programs. And most high-octane preschools require a student be potty-trained.

So here is where the debate gets particularly icky. There are folks who want to go back to the good old days — the 1950s — when 90 percent of kids were toilet-trained by 18 months.

Today, that's less than 5 percent. Are we just lazier and more indulgent?

"I think it's about our lifestyle. Things are just different today," Zimmitti said.

Those 1950s moms got tired of washing all those diapers, and most of them were home with the kids to potty-train them. Today, both parents in most families work, and disposable diapers are so high-tech that babies have a hard time knowing they're even wet.

The right age to train is about 2 or 3, Zimmitti said. But it's common to still be a little leaky then.

"If your 4-year-old's not potty-trained, it's time to push it," she said. But if your 3-year-old is not meeting the deadline of a school that the parents have their heart set on, it's really time to rethink a square-pegs approach to parenting.

That's what Rosso eventually did. Her child is accident-free and happy at another school.

There is no cookie-cutter approach for anything child-related. Whether it's pushing science on a dreamy poet or music on a tone-deaf athlete, society is littered with the rubble of childhoods mangled by parental ambition.

Schools can set their standards and enforce their rules. But really, it's up to parents to keep the ever-escalating achievement race from going down the toilet.

© 2011 Washington Post

Race to the top begins with child's bottom 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:50pm]
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