Particular concerns of parents about child rearing seem to come in waves, like the tides, washing in anxieties around specific issues. A current wave seems to be that of “potty” training with a focus on how quickly it can be accomplished — three days, three hours, apparently the quicker the better. One can speculate about what has made this the issue at this particular time.

In general, parents are subject to considerable pressure these days with both parents working and child care a major issue. As a result, children start “school” at earlier and earlier ages, which may put some pressure on the issue of toileting. The question arose in several situations I encountered recently. A child turned up in a preschool group with a doll potty and the requisite doll to go with it. This created a problem in that the mother had to leave for work but the child was apparently unsure of how to proceed without her. I came to understand what this was about when another mother consulting me about toilet training, asked me about the book, “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day,” by psychologists Nathan Azrin and Richard Foxx.

Ideas about toilet training like almost every other area of child rearing, have undergone numerous changes over the years. The areas of concern that arise usually relate to the issue of socializing children such as sleeping through the night, using utensils, feeding and dressing oneself, and of course, giving up diapers and using the toilet. These are steps on the road to independence, which mean less work for parents. Along the way, the role of parents in a child taking these steps has become intertwined with the question of child development.

The question of what is best for children contrasted to what may be best for parents, is one that arises in the various methods that have been recommended over time as “best” in accomplishing these developmental steps. Not that long ago, what was considered best for children was to achieve adult behavior as soon as possible. What was best for parents was what was best for children.

The advent of the child study movement and the influence of psychoanalytic theory changed the focus to the needs of the child, creating a major impact on child-rearing methods. That shift is most apparent in the influence of Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician/psychiatrist whose book on child care written after World War II, the first paperback selling for $0.25, reached a generation of parents becoming something like a bible.

Regarding toilet training, Spock’s approach was, “The best method of all is to leave bowel training almost entirely up to your baby.” In later editions of his book, Spock began to backtrack, writing, “the method of waiting for the child to take the initiative didn’t work for some parents at all.”

Toilet training went from holding a baby over the toilet during infancy as the method of training, to leaving it entirely up to the child. Neither extreme seemed to work very well. Now the attempt seems to reflect an attempt to consider the needs of both child and parents by accomplishing training quickly in accordance with an understanding of child development.

Yet even “training in less than a day” requires a child’s readiness for training, which has been recognized as the precursor to successful training no matter what the method. Readers are warned that the recommended technique requires extensive preparation.

The real issue seems to be identifying a child’s readiness for training. There is no way to make that development happen quickly.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.