Toilet training

Rita Robinson's research considers societal assumptions and messages about toilet training, and how those affect adult behaviours.

Our society has strong views about toilet training, and Rita was interested in exploring how these views affect two vulnerable groups of children, those with some level of impairment or disability, and those who are subjected to physical abuse.

She embarked on a discourse analysis of New Zealand social messages about toilet training at three points of time - in the 1950s, in the 1980s, and currently, in the 2010s. She found relevant texts at multiple levels, from Plunket books and pamphlets given to families, to the textbooks which informed Plunket nurses and other health practitioners, and government and international reports and policy documents. She then analysed the messages about toilet training found in these sources, looking for insights into what was considered right and wrong practice, what is acceptable and what is not in our society.

One of Rita's findings is that our society assumes a strong link between cognitive delay and toilet training delay. This means that adults may be delaying toilet training for children who have cognitive disabilities, even though there may be no physiological reason why they can't be toilet trained. It also means that children who are not toilet trained for some reason, may also be assumed by adults to be cognitively delayed. In both situations the children can be disadvantaged by the societal assumptions that adults are making about them. 

Rita also found evidence of a connection between toileting accidents and child abuse, especially fatal child abuse. Because our health depends upon hygienic behaviour, we are taught by our society's messages to experience a strong sense of disgust for body wastes out of place. But there are physiological similarities between disgust and anger, and hence a risk that an adult who feels strong disgust might slip into anger towards a child who is not yet toilet trained. This important finding means that moderating societal disgust might be helpful to reduce the incidence of fatal child abuse in New Zealand. 

Rita's research has important implications for how parents and other caregivers toilet train children, and also for policy and practice in schools and government agencies. She is looking forward to working through these implications to benefit New Zealand children. 

March 2018