Loving Homework: Making Things Good By Contrast

My son is now five, and in kindergarten. He doesn’t get proper “homework” each day, but he does have a little “home reading” workbook which he is supposed to do at home, at his own pace.

It consists of little lessons in phonics. We work through the phonics lesson and when I feel that he has mastered the particular sounds in this section, he takes the book to school and his teacher tests him on a few simple words. If he passes, he gets the next lesson.

So, it is low-pressure, go-at-your-own-pace homework, but it is still homework. My goal is make him enjoy it, because I want him to love reading the way that I love reading.

I made a mistake a couple of weeks ago, shortly after he brought home the first lesson. He and I had been playing on the computer before dinner. After dinner, he asked to go back to playing the game. I was paying attention to the baby at that moment so I replied absently, “no, honey, I don’t think so. We should do your reading.”


Immediately he responded with, “I don’t WANT to do my reading!”

What I really meant was “No, we don’t play on the computer this close to bed time,” which is our usual household rule. The reading thought was separate in my brain. But what I communicated to my son was: we COULD have played on the computer but HOMEWORK got in the way.

This is not how I want him to think about homework.

If you want to get your kid to do something, never contrast it with something they like better.

You can bet I won’t make that mistake again.

Fast forward two weeks – we have just finished dinner. We tell him, “time to clean up all the toys!” Then, I add, “unless you think we have time to do some of your reading first?”

Of course he decided that we DID have time for some reading, and he happily settled down on my lap and we went through several pages of reading before I sighed reluctantly and said, “well, I really love reading with you, but it’s time for us to clean up toys and go to bed.”

He begged for more reading time. Which he didn’t get. But the difference is clear.

When his reading was contrasted with something he hugely enjoys, like playing computer games with me, it seemed very unappealing. But when it was contrasted with a chore, like tidying his toys, it suddenly seemed very appealing indeed.

If you want to get your kid to do something, contrast it with something they like even less.

We use the same principle to get him to do those chores in the first place – while he doesn’t like tidying his toys, he REALLY dislikes going to bed. So he will clean up his toys, help fold clothes, help put laundry in the washing machine, all to stave off bed time.

Now I have him doing homework to stave off chores, then follow that with chores to stave off bedtime, and so he does each one more or less happily.

Much better!


Street Training: Because, You Know… SAFETY.

Roads are DANGEROUS, yo.

Over a million dogs are killed by cars in the U.S. each year, and cars are also one of the leading causes of death in children, with thousands being struck each year.

That’s why I always, always recommend street training your children and puppies.

I’m always surprised by how many people people DON’T street train.

Freedom is beautiful... except where it could end with a SPLAT

Freedom is beautiful… except where it could end with a SPLAT

Oh, I’m pretty sure every sane parent tells their kid not to run into the road, but I don’t think the rules are consistent, because they still seem to do it.

I see both dogs and small children joyously straying into the road on walks, while owners/parents panic (or don’t, which seems even stranger to me).

It’s worth the effort, trust me.

How To Street Train Your Puppy Toddler

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How to Potty Train Your Toddler the Puppy Way – Part 4

Bowel movements are always harder.

…. allow me to rephrase.

Bowel movements are always MORE DIFFICULT.

People usually tell me that their dog has the urination thing pegged but still leaves little brown presents in surprising places.

That’s because they happen less often. A normal dog might defecate only once or twice a day, while a it will happily squat or lift its leg every two feet, long after the bladder has been emptied.

It’s the same with toddlers.

Our son was completely potty trained pee-wise within a couple of days.

(At least, while awake. Nearly a year later, he still tends to pee in his sleep, which is different from dogs, who never pee in their sleep at all unless they have some kind of hormonal imbalance.)

But poops were a different story.

Since they were less frequent, he had a much weaker reward history when it came to doing them on the potty. He also tended to do most of his bowel movements at daycare, where they insisted on pull-ups. (I will explain my hatred of the pull up as a training tool in a different post, as this post isn’t big enough to contain ALL THE HATRED.)

There was also a fairly traumatic incident where he had an accident in his stupid pull up and it went all over the floor and the young helper was horrified and I think they over-corrected him for it.

Over correction is a problem.

When someone terrifies the living bejeebers out of a dog, we call that over-correction. It’s the sign that you’ve gone too far. The most notable symptom is that the dog shows fear of the whole training process, which should never happen.

When your puppy or child has an accident, you want to interrupt it, redirect the the appropriate location, and then encourage a success. You don’t want to make them think that they have just utterly failed at life.

But when my son had a breakdown over a poop accident the next weekend, I suspected that this is exactly what had happened at his daycare.

Your puppy should not cringe with horror after having an accident, and your child should not weep “Waaaah! My pooped! NO POOP DOWN DOWN!” after an accident.

In this situation, simply and calmly redirect to the correct location and look for the slightest sign of success to try and build their confidence of the whole process.

You need to build up a strong motivation to overcome the fear of failure.

So we took a trip to the dollar store. We bought a small zoo of plastic animals of questionable quality. We placed them in a glass vase on a high shelf.

Those were POOPING TOYS.

A bowel movement in the underwear was OKAY, but would not result in a toy. On the other hand, a poop in the potty, well… that would be amazing.

There were no more poop accidents after that.

Even after the toys ran out.

Return to Potty Training Part 3

How To Wean Off Of Treats

How to Potty Train Your Toddler the Puppy Way Part 3

My hesitancy over potty training my toddler melted away once I realized that I could apply my knowledge of puppy training to him.

The next long weekend, I booked no dog training appointments, and my husband and I shacked up in the house with a supply of Smarties (a common candy in Canada, similar to M&Ms), stickers, and hope.

Then we followed the basic rules for potty training your puppy, modified in small ways to suit a human being instead of a canine.

Rule 1

Follow the puppy around constantly. CONSTANTLY. DO NOTHING ELSE. Whenever the puppy starts to make a “mistake” in the house, immediately interrupt the behaviour by making a startling noise and picking her up.

Well, that wouldn’t do much good since our child, unlike a puppy, was wearing a diaper. The obvious solution was to strip him naked so we could see what was going on down there and catch him in the act as needed.

So we stripped him naked and watched him closely. He was standing around innocently playing with his blocks when I heard a watery little sound. Sure enough, he was urinating on his blocks.

“Uh oh! Nope! Stop!” I cried, and grabbed him by the shoulders.

Rule 2

Take the puppy to the correct location and wait and pray and sacrifice a goat in the hope that she will finish what he started.

I rushed my son to his potty, urine still a-flying from his penis.

“Pee goes in here!” I said, and the couple teaspoons-worth fell in the designated location.

Then we threw a party.

Rule 3

Whenever the puppy does happen to urinate or defecate in the right place, throw a big party. Like, Ed McMahon just showed up at your house kind of a party. Give multiple kinds of rewards – extra special treats that he never gets at any other time, AND lots of verbal praise AND petting AND a play session.smarties

I usually use cut-up hot dogs for potty training, but our human puppy found that Smarties were more motivating. This might vary from child to child.

Our son had never had chocolate before, so he thought this was a GREAT idea.

But candy wasn’t enough. He ALSO got a sticker to put on a potty chart (which was basically a piece of bristol board hung on the door for the purpose of receiving stickers). There was also a dance. And a high five. And a hug.

Since bowel movements were less common, I allocated double-reward status to those, on the recommendation of some experienced acquaintances. TWO candies and TWO stickers!

We also promised that if he managed to get ten stickers on his chart, he earned a very special reward: UNDERWEAR.

Rule 4

Give the puppy lots of opportunity for success by leading her to the right spot on a regular basis, especially after he has eaten or drank or played or sneezed or… well, you get the idea. Do it a lot.

We lead him to the potty regularly, between each activity. And if he wanted to read a book? Why he could do so on the potty and only on the potty. This Plastic God was Lord of All Good Things, and required regular visits.

Success Starts Small

looked I pooped.jpg

That first accident on his blocks was the one and only one he had in the house. He earned his underwear (NOT Pull Up diapers, because they wouldn’t show off accidents as clearly. You MUST catch accidents every time!) by the second day and pranced about happily in them.

The first time we tried leaving the house and taking a short walk around the block he wet himself. But the good news was that he recognized it immediately, thanks to the new underwear. So the mistake was caught in the act, we ran back inside, and he managed to make a bit more in the potty.

The next day, we tried a trip to the grocery store. I put him on the potty just before we went out the door, drove like a madwoman to the store, and then carried him into the grocery store and DIRECTLY into the bathroom. He was informed that a pee in the grocery store potty would result in TWO STICKERS and he complied very willingly. A quick trip around the store, a final visit to the potty, and a race home resulted in a successful accident-free trip.

Potty Training was complete.

Well, with the exception of bowel movements…

Return to Potty Training Part 2

Go On to Potty Training Part 4

How To Potty Train Your Toddler The Puppy Way – Part 2

I kept putting off potty training my son because I was afraid of failure. I had never done this before, and apparently, neither had my mother. Since I’m a first wife, my husband hadn’t either.

Then a dog training session changed all that.

Now, when I get called in for puppy training, it’s usually for things like eating shoes, walking on leash, basic obedience. Most families have already been doing the potty thing for a week or two and it’s mostly under control when I get there. I might make a few suggestions to “tweak” things, and that’s it.

But this one was different.

The poor guy, a big twenty something guy with the cutest little French Bulldog puppy you could ever hope to meet, was in a breakdown over his puppy. He was sure that he was a terrible puppy daddy and seriously considering returning the puppy to the breeder because he just wasn’t good enough for this small furry baby.

So I spent two hours there taking him through the potty training process, step by step, with lots of praise and encouragement and assurance.

(He kept the puppy and it turned out very well)

I came home asking myself, “why can’t I apply those same steps to my son?”

After all, the steps I had carefully outlined shared a lot of similarities with the advice in my potty training books:

How To Potty Train A Puppy


  • Follow the puppy around constantly. CONSTANTLY. DO NOTHING ELSE. (If anyone ever told you that raising a puppy is easy, they were wrong and possibly drunk).
  • Whenever the puppy starts to make a “mistake” in the house, immediately interrupt the behaviour by making a startling noise and picking her up.
  • Take the puppy to the correct location and wait and pray and sacrifice a goat in the hope that she will finish what he started.
  • Whenever the puppy does happen to urinate or defecate in the right place, throw a big party. Like, Ed McMahon just showed up at your house kind of a party. Give multiple kinds of rewards – extra special treats that he never gets at any other time, AND lots of verbal praise AND petting AND a play session.
  • Give the puppy lots of opportunity for success by leading her to the right spot on a regular basis, especially after he has eaten or drank or played or sneezed or… well, you get the idea. Do it a lot.

And that’s it. If you do it right, they learn very fast.

I knew that. And that meant that I totally knew how to potty train my kid.

Return to Potty Training Part 1

Go On To Potty Training Part 3

How To Potty Train Your Toddler The Puppy Way – Part 1

I spent a lot of time agonizing over how to potty train my kid.

Like, a lot.

I asked my mother how she potty trained me. She said she didn’t. My aunt did it over a weekend as a surprise while my parents were taking a short vacation from parenthood.

So I asked my aunt. She didn’t remember the details, and she was dying of cancer, so I felt it inappropriate to press her on the matter, even though I wanted to grab her and yell “DON’T LET YOUR SECRETS DIE WITH YOU! HELP MEEEEE!”

All I know about the process is that apparently for weeks afterwards, whenever I used the potty I would ask, “is Auntie Helen happy??”

Then I asked my mother in law how she potty trained her kids (of which there were five).

Unfortunately, my mother in law is the ONLY mother in law in the history of mother in laws who absolutely will not give advice.

I have asked her for her thoughts on everything from sleep training to hair cutting, and received nary a tidbit of experience from her. She doesn’t shut me down, she doesn’t REFUSE to give advice. But she usually gives some sort of bland “Oh, I don’t know…” and shortly after the subject changes, very naturally and organically, into something else and eventually it dawns on me that I’ve been sidetracked yet again.

And don’t tell me that she doesn’t like to instruct, because the woman is a freaking teacher.

I suspect that the experience from having four daughter in laws and ten grandchildren has made her a little gun shy about the whole parenting advice thing.

Or maybe she genuinely trusts me to figure it out on my own.

Everyone envies me my mother in law.

Anyway, I bought and read some potty training books and agonized for a while. My son was two now, and I felt that I had really changed enough diapers, but I just didn’t know how to get the whole process started.

I think the part that freaked me out was the equipment involved.

Puppies don’t need potty training equipment. You know what it’s called? A yard. That’s all you need. Sometimes condo owners have to settle for a pee pad on the porch. That’s as fancy as you can or should get.

But there is EQUIPMENT involved in potty training a human child. You either need a special seat for the grown up toilet, or a special mini-toilet for the child to use instead.

My own toddler was convinced that both pieces of equipment were spawned by the devil to suck him into the depths of hell.

potty evil

So I decided to start with a basic desensitization program, which in parenting circles is called “Pre-Potty Training”

When a dog is scared of something, you need to introduce it to him often with great casualness. Nothing terrifies a puppy like you trying to force him to go up to something that strikes him as inherently evil, like, say, a shiny kitchen floor or the neighbour’s trash can.

After all, if someone tried to grab you and force you to go up close to your neighbour’s garbage can, wouldn’t that strike you as deeply sinister?

Instead, you just make sure that it is AROUND a lot, and you praise any kind of interest. You can make it more tempting by scattering treats and toys around it, so that he gets rewards every time he goes near the thing.


I toyed with the idea of scattering candies all over the potty seat, but dismissed this for fear of setting up poor hygienic habits. I had visions of him licking the side of the toilet some day.

I settled for the traditional book instead. I went out and bought two books about using the potty and told him that these were special books that could only be read by little boys who could sit on a potty.

Then I went about my business.

Soon he would sit on the potty seat or his plastic potty for the duration of a story. Then for several repeats.

It took a while longer to get him to do so with no diaper on, with his danglers bared for all toilet monsters to grab.

Most of the time, no actual productivity occurred during these sessions. The two time that he did happen to pee a bit while reading I threw him a massive party, convincing him that this was the best thing he had ever achieved in his life up to this point (which, admittedly, wasn’t saying a whole lot).

But any emissions were purely accidental. He had no sense of how to urinate on purpose, how to even know when he might have to urinate, and I had absolutely no idea how to teach him.

Pre-Potty Training complete… and stalled.

Capturing Behaviours

One of the secrets to having a child who does sweet, adorable things (instead of appalling and annoying things) is to really try and capture the behaviours that you love most.

“Capturing” is the word behaviorists use for encouraging natural behaviours. It’s a way of clicking “save” on that adorable thing your puppy/kid just did.

It’s very simple. When you see if, and if you want it to happen again, reward the ever-loving hell out of it.

Want to teach your dog to sneeze? Throw a party and give him lots of treats every time he does it, and soon you’ll see him trying to figure out how to do it on purpose.

Want to teach your dog to take a bow? Wait until he stretches and celebrate. Soon he’ll be bowing every time he sees a treat in your hand.

I taught my son to sign “milk” when he was 9 months old by capturing the behavior.

One day he happened to develop a fascination with opening and closing his hands. He wasn’t trying to sign “milk”, he was just like “look! Fingers! I CAN CONTROL THEM WITH MY MIND!” But it happened to look like the ASL sign for “milk”.

Every time he did it I picked him up and plunked my boob in his mouth.

After this felicitous occurrence happened several time in a row, he took to opening and closing his fist while watching me intently. Sure enough, I immediately offered him a chance to nurse and that was that.

Next thing you knew, he was opening and closing his fist frantically and constantly, and waiting for me to acquiesce to his demand.

cmillman chicken baby

Food has always been a powerful motivator with this kid.

Anyway, “milk” was his first and only sign until he was 14 months old or so. It also because his sign for “mommy” because basically I was just a pair of milk jugs in his eyes.

As his speech improved, that sign faded, but even at two and a half, long after he had forgotten that he had ever used sign language, my son still unconsciously opened and closed his hand when he really wanted something.

Behaviour definitely captured.