“What is it?” I ask Grace while holding up a cut out square.
She redirects her focus to the paper square and answers, “Paper.”
I laugh to myself. She is correct. It was my error for not asking the questions correctly.
“It is paper, you’re right, but what shape is the paper?”
“Tri—anglool,” she says.
“No, it’s not a triangle… It’s a s—“
“Tri—angool Tri-angool…” she continues to repeat. She’s stuck in a little loop. Maybe she likes the way ‘triangle’ sounds.
“It’s a sq—“ I partially prompt her.
“It’s a square.”
“It is a square!” I say as I lay one little square and one big square on the kitchen table. I usually hold her hand at the wrist to draw her attention to the task at hand, or in this case under her hand. “How many squares do we have?” I guide her hand on top of the first square.
“One…” she says. I move her hand over to the next square. “Two.”
“Two squares!” I repeat excitedly. “Good job, Grace! What do you want?”
“I want the Chex.”
“You got it, girl,” I say as a pour a small bowl of cimmamon Chex for her.
“Miss RAZ…” Bella, the wee one, says from upstairs.
“You want an M&M? Did you go potty?”
What is the relation between M&Ms and going potty, you ask? One M&M for going number one and two M&Ms for number two, duh. Bella is in the process of being potty trained. If she successfully goes in the toilet without any accident, she is rewarded with chocolaty goodness. We are all familiar with this type of learning. Do something someone wants you to do and get rewarded, much the same way we are all go to work and are then rewarded with a paycheck to buy as many M&Ms as we want. Most of us are natural practitioners of this aspect behavioral psychology known as positive reinforcement.
The goal of reinforcement is to increase the occurrence of a certain behavior, in this case the placing of pee and poo in the potty. The “positive” in positive reinforcement is a bit misleading. It’s hard to ignore the connotative meaning of “positive,” which usually implies something good, but in this context “positive” only means to add or give something, i.e. the M&M. There is also such a thing as “positive punishment.” The goal of punishment is reduce the occurrence of a behavior. The “positive” in this case again means applying or adding something aversive, perhaps imposing some chore as reparation.
Bella doesn’t completely grasp the concept of actions and consequences and whole-heartedly believes she should be given M&Ms all the livelong day. Not on my watch, Little Missy. When I am around, there is no such thing as free junk food for anyone! Grace works hard for her cavities. For one M&M or a small bowl of cinnamon Chex, Grace has to answer questions or use some spontaneous, unprompted language. (Don’t worry, they have full and free access to healthy snacks. It’s the sugary snacks they have to work for.)
Bella doesn’t respond or persist so ignore her, assuming everything is under control. I redirect my attention back to Grace. We continue with our big and little shapes discussion. She answers more questions and is rewarded with her the reinforcer of choice at the moment, a small amount of pickle juice. Kid likes salt.
“I went potty…” I think I hear Bella say from upstairs.
Oh, good. She’s handling this potty training thing well.
“Well come downstairs, and I’ll give you an M&M,” I yell back and redirect to Grace. “See these shapes are both big and these are both… Little!”
“What?” I yell back. I am reminded how when growing up my mother and I would yell from across the house even though we had a house intercom. It drove my dad crazy.
“(still unintelligible)… panties.”
“You, what?” I say to myself, trying hard to decode the distant, three-year-old language.
“I POOPED MY PANTIES!”
This time I heard her loud and clear. Dammit.
“Alright… I’ll be right there…” I say as I scoot out of the bench.
“I’m coming, sweetheart.”
Oh, gosh. I smell it before I find Bella in the bathroom. It is vile. How do children produce this sort of acrid poo!? It looks like she made some sort of attempt at the potty. Her pants are around her ankle along with a large ball of the offending stink liable to roll out onto the bath mat if this is not handled with the upmost care! I kneel down and am trying very carefully to remove the pants and poopy panties, but somehow she has already managed to get a dollop of it on her ankle. Oh, god! The ball rolled out and is now a mere three inches from my knee. The poopaphobe in me is starting to freak out. I remind myself to take a deep breath, and immediately regret it.
After no less than five minutes of fecal crisis, it is all over. The child and the surroundings are clean. I leave Bella to her own devices and hurry back downstairs where I left Grace, who ran off long ago. I notice my camera is still recording and stop it. Hm. I wonder what she did while I was gone… I fast forward to the moment I leave the table. Grace keeps her eyes on me as I walk out of the kitchen. I’m assuming she is going to run off any second now. Nope… Once she is sure I am a safe distance, she snatches the coveted box of sugary cinnamon Chex. As she grabs handfuls of the sugary goodness, she continues to back up in the direction of the staircase to ensure I am not coming back. She just gave what is known as “non-contingent” reinforcement… Otherwise known as a freebee. I suppose she could also be rewarding herself for keeping a watchful eye.
“Can I have an M&M?” Bella asks. I didn’t even notice she came downstairs.
“Because you pooped in your panties.”
“Oh,” she says with disappointment as she walks off.
I’m surprised she accepted that answer. Maybe she is starting to get it. I grab a napkin to wipe down the cinnamon sugar Grace left behind. That sneaky little turd…
She positively reinforced her vigilant behavior herself with handfuls of Chex. Bella receives no punishment (because that would be mean and inappropriate to punish a toddler for a potty accident) and no reinforcement for the poopy panties. And me… I should probably be punished in some way for not responding and attending faster to Bella’s potty situation.
Oh, wait… There is it. Positively punishing poo on the back of my hand. Karmic caca.
Next time, I will surely be more prompt with potty predicaments.