“Wiped” Out?

Dear Mamas On Call,

I hope you can help settle an argument between myself and my sister-in-law. She recently came for a visit (she lives in Australia) and got to spend time with my kids who are 5 and 1. She had never met the baby and hadn’t seen the older one since he was 2. We don’t get to see her that often because of the distance.

Anyway, one day she saw that I was wiping him (after he pooped) and she freaked out. She couldn’t believe that he didn’t do that on his own and I got defensive and we had an argument. But now I’m wondering if she was right. When SHOULD he be able to do this alone? It’s no big deal for me and frankly I never really thought about it.



Dear Cathy,
Well mama, you’re barking up the tree called “independence” and it’s always a little hard to tell when your child is ready for more. But you’ve got to remember that helping them take baby steps towards total independence from us is what parenthood is all about.

Since we learn alot about our role as a teacher and our child’s readiness for new experiences on-the-job, the first kid often gets held back and helped out a little more than the ones that come after.

Whatever the experience is – be it potty training, giving up the pacifier or sippy cup, or being expected to stay in bed and go to sleep once the lights are out – it’s a new thing for him and a new one for us, too. So, we sometimes let a behavior that is ripe for changing go on longer than it really needs to.

We are learning the ropes and finding out for ourselves when our little one can be reasonably expected to be able to do something on his own.

So, no judgement here. But … at five years old, yes, he should definitely be able to clean himself well after having a bowel movement. I know, you probably wanted me to tell you your sister-in-law was full of hot air and to just ignore her. The truth is, she was right, but we don’t need to tell her that!

Typically, when you start the toilet-training process, you let them start working right away on learning how to wipe, too. With girls, it’s a no-brainer and more automatic for us since they have to wipe, regardless of what’s coming out. But boys only need the toilet paper some of the time, so we moms are occasionally a little slow-on-the-uptake about teaching them the fine art of wiping themselves.

Basically, sometime between ages 3 and 4, a child should be able to master this skill. They will need to be checked and occasionally helped for awhile, but it is definitely something they should be working towards as soon as they start using the potty chair.

A couple of tips:

  • Always teach them to wipe front-to-back (in order to prevent urinary infections, especially in girls).
  • Make sure you show them exactly how much toilet paper they need to get the job done. Left to their own devices, they may come to believe that more is better and you may end up with an overflowing toilet and and a big bill from the plumber.
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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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