Cross-Cultural Toilet Training Practices: East Africa and the U.S.
Author: Heather Hollandsworth
Child-rearing practices differ through a range of cultures. These differences occur based on a specific culture's needs, customs, and traditions, and toilet training is no exception. There is no set standard for toilet training across cultures or even within our own culture. American families use a variety of ways to toilet train their children. The Digo people of East Africa have very different views on toilet training than Americans. The Digo practice different toilet training procedures out of their own necessity. The Digo begin toilet training infants during the first few weeks of their life and most children are successfully trained by four to six months. This is a big difference from the common American practice of beginning toilet training at around age two. In the case of the Digo, it is important that the children are toilet trained earlier so that the mother can go back to work and so the child themselves can become an active and helpful part of the family. In America, with diapers and daycare centers it is not necessary for children to be toilet trained before the mother can go back to work. As a result of necessity, East Africans and Americans have adapted very different ways to toilet train their children. These different practices are what make child-rearing a culturally diverse practice.
The Digo People
The Digo people live in “the wooded grassland, coastal plain extending south along the Indian Ocean from Mombasa into Tanzania” (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 172). They are farmers who live in large dirt houses with grass roofs with their extended family, which are usually six to ten adults and children (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 172). Men and women work every day beginning at 6 AM and continuing until sunset. “The Digo baby’s first two months are spent in almost constant physical contact with the mother” (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 172). When a baby is between two and three months, other family members begin to help care for them so the mother can go back to work. When a baby is two to three weeks and still spending most of their time with the mother, the mother begins toilet training.
In order to begin bladder training, “the mother sits on the ground outside with her legs straight out in front of her. The infant is placed between the mother’s legs, facing away from her, in a sitting position, supported by the mother’s body. The mother then makes a “shuus” noise that the infant learns to associate with voiding” (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 173). A reward is given when the child urinates to the “shuus” sound. This learned response is a logical way to teach bladder training because infants accomplish many tasks through learned responses. Eventually, infants sit in this position by themselves and can usually urinate in this position and on command by at least 4 to 5 months. Even before a child can recognize the feeling of having to urinate, they recognize the position they are in and know it is time to urinate.
A similar procedure is used for bowel training. Again the mother sits on the ground but for this procedure, her knees are bent. “The infant sits facing her, supported on the lower parts of her legs, with his legs over hers and leaning slightly forward, the support of her feet providing a kind of potty” (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 173). In this procedure, there is no noise associated with bowel elimination but the position of the infant causes him to eliminate. Just like bladder training, a reward is given when an infant moves his bowels while in this position. Again the child recognizes the position they are in and knows it is time it eliminates.
This type of toilet training is both relaxing for the infant and the mother. There are no consequences for not urinating or moving the bowels on command, instead, the child is simply placed back into the activity he was previously doing. The Digo do not regard this activity as a “private or unclean activity but is rather a relaxed and normal daily part of infant care” (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 174). Soon the infant associates elimination with these specific positions and the mother learns the signals of the child when they need to eliminate. By the age of one “if he eliminates in the house or in the courtyard, he is at first warned and then physically punished” (deVries & deVries, 1977, p. 174). This practice is quite different from American toilet training practices but is necessary for mothers to go back to work. Without diapers and daycare, the Digo have to toilet train their children at a very young age and they seem to be successful at it.
Toilet Training in America
In America, mothers usually wait and take cues from their child to know when it is time to begin toilet training, this usually occurs around the age of two. The Neuman System Model of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal stressors are used to help understand the basics of toilet training. “The intrapersonal stressors are the child’s need to succeed in toilet training and attain autonomy. The parents’ expectations of the child during toilet training are interpersonal stressors. The standards imposed by society to achieve toilet training at a certain age are the extrapersonal stressors” (Kinservik, 2000). In using this model American’s believe in the importance of waiting until a child is ready and the importance of trying to alleviate some of these stressors for a child. Once the child is able to recognize these expectations, they are better prepared to begin toilet training.
American psychologists believe that children need to be psychologically ready to toilet train successfully. “Physical readiness usually occurs between 18 and 24 months of age when the child gains control of the urethral and anal sphincters” (Kinservik, 2000). Children must also be able to walk, sit, and pull on and off clothing in order to be toilet trained. “Mental readiness for toilet training includes recognizing the urge to urinate and defecate” (Kinservik, 2000). “The child must be mentally able to understand the benefit of using the toilet, must be willing to participate in the toilet training process, and must view the experience as positive” (Kinservik).
American children learn much toilet training from modeling and encouragement from their parents. They first learn the words associated with the toilet, poop, and pee. They begin to understand where poop and pee come from and where it goes. Supplying the vocabulary for toilet training is the first step along with a discussion of how to use the toilet. American usually discusses important steps like these with their children and it becomes a parent and child activity. Once a child can begin to recognize the feeling they get when they need to use the bathroom they are encouraged to sit on the toilet. The entire process is a child-centered process that occurs when they are ready and includes rewards and praise when the task is accomplished. Usually, American children are not pushed to toilet train before they are ready as it can result in physical and psychological problems such as constipation and shame. It has been my experience as a preschool teacher that this is slowly changing as more and more daycare centers are requiring that child at the age of three is completely toilet trained. In many cases this causes parents to begin to push their children to toilet train so that mothers can go back to work.
The Cultural Factor
Every culture has its own reasons for its specific child-rearing techniques and styles. “Factors such as living conditions, projected desirable traits, needs of daily routine, maternal and food availability, etc., condition parental goals and training methods” (deVries& deVries, 1977, p. 175). In the case of the Digo, it is more convenient for the mother to start toilet training her infant at two to three weeks because that is when she has the most time to spend with them. Digo children learn earlier because there are fewer restrictions put on them when it comes to excreting waste. American children are expected to use a potty whereas Digo children go outside the house. American children need to unbutton buttons, unzip zippers, and unsnap snaps; Digo children do not have these obstacles in their way. I believe that deVriers’ statement, “Expectations and perceptions of infant capabilities and their subsequent translation into behavior are adaptive and attuned to environmental and cultural factors”, best describes the initiatives of each culture toward their children (1977, p. 176). Common cultural practices are passed on from generation to generation and if there is still a need for those practices they will continue on.
In the field of child care, providers often encounter different child-rearing techniques and styles. If this important information is not shared between family and caregiver, it can impact the care a child receives. Practices such as holding children, feeding, sleeping, and socialization, can differ greatly from one culture to another. As seen through the practices of the Digo people, toilet training is just one of the many inconsistencies children may encounter when attending a child care program that has different cultural beliefs than those of their family. Families should feel encouraged and welcomed to share all of their cultural beliefs and behaviors with caregivers to provide a continuity of care from home to the child care setting. Additionally, providers need to be sensitive to different child care practices and be willing to adjust and accommodate their practices for the specific children in their care. Accommodations could include, holding children, helping children to feed, creating a specific atmosphere during nap time, adjusting a child's schedule, or serving specific foods. When children's child care and home life are similar, their transition is easier and they are able to form secure attachments to their caregivers. These secure attachments allow children to freely explore, learn, and grow. With solid family and caregiver partnerships, communication flows freely and the child's growth and development are the number one focus. When families and caregivers are working together, children reap the benefits. Creating culturally competent classrooms provides all children with an opportunity to learn and grow both in their own culture and through the learning of others' cultures. Educators who have the skills and knowledge of cultural competence are able to create classrooms that embrace, celebrate, and educate all cultures and diverse characteristics, empowering young children to proudly accept their culture and diversity.
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deVries, M.W., & deVries, M.R. (1977). Cultural Relativity of Toilet Training Readiness: A Perspective from East Africa. Pediatrics, 60,170-177. Retrieved September 30, 2006, From Academic Search Premier database.
Kinservik, M.A. & Friedhoff M.M. (2000). Control Issues in Toilet Training. Pediatric Nursing, 26(3), 267-74. Retrieved September 30, 2006, From Google Scholar database.