Burkean Conspiracy Theories: Scatological Edition

Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone without an infant should go out and buy Dr. Jill M. Lekovic’s Diaper-Free Before 3: The Healthier Way to Toilet Train and Help Your Child Out of Diapers Sooner. That would be weird. But if you just have a fondness for cultural history, I recommend you stand around in the Barnes & Noble aisle (“Hey, ladies!”) and read Chapter 2, in which Dr. Lekovic traces the provenance of the contemporary American potty training regime. It’s a remarkable walk through the history of our relationship with our babies’ waste.

Our current practice of keeping kids in disposable diapers well past their toddler years, Lekovic argues, is a historical anomaly that emerged from the undue influence given to a few articles in the postwar era. Psychoanalysts, in reaction to the severity of their behaviorist predecessors (some might call it Oedipal…), invested potty training with a fanciful but plausible-sounding psychic dimension, and declared that it isn’t a humane option until, to cite the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Your child asks to wear grown-up underwear.” Our grocery store shelves are stocked with enormous diaper sizes all because a few psychotherapist manqués found themselves in the pediatric profession and had the perfect jargon to surf the gestalt. Dr. Lekovic hints at the disposable diaper industry’s obvious material interest in keeping kids wearing their products as long as possible, but her Dr. Evil is the perfectly cast (ageless, shiny, tanned to the color of a watchband) T. Berry Brazelton, whose 1962 article set the stage for regarding excretion as a psychically fraught developmental milestone. Even in 2004, Brazelton was still touting his original article, squeezing the last bits of credibility from its Freudian overtones:

At this age, children never know where their bowel movements have gone. This question may haunt them afterward. “Where is my poop? Why have they taken it away from me?”

Why, indeed? Maybe it’s to propitiate the ghosts!

Ghosts in parent’s nurseries — for example, parents’ bad memories of their own toilet training — are likely to make them anxious about their child’s training. Many of the parents in my study were ready to admit that the fear of reproducing their own traumatic experience prevented them from introducing each step to the child without anxiety. I wish that all parents like this could recognize and accept their need for help to sort through their own past experiences.

While our culture is busy redefining psychological states in physical terms (via James ), toilet training retains all the mystification and obscurantism of popular psychoanalysis, circa 1962.

I find Dr. Lekovic’s thesis pretty convincing, and wish I’d read her book a decade ago. Whether or not it will work under our, er, strenuous laboratory conditions remains to be seen. But efficacy aside, its ideological appeal is enough to get me to suspend my critical faculties. You mean I can observe some pre-modern folk wisdom, my kids will be out of diapers sooner, and I can stick it to the Boomers and the Freudian poseurs? Where do I sign?