Potty training is an important milestone in a child’s development that marks their transition from infant to toddler. For Native American tribes, potty training was a necessary skill for survival that was approached in a variety of culturally specific ways. Many factors influenced potty training methods including environment, gender norms, rituals, and the child’s readiness.
Overall, Native American potty training emphasized learning through observation, praising successes, accepting accidents, and working at the child’s pace. Harshness was avoided and children were given independence appropriate to their skills. Despite diversity between tribes, many core values around patience, respect, and community were shared. Understanding traditional Native American potty training provides insight into their child-rearing philosophies that respected both autonomy and interdependence.
When Did Potty Training Begin?
Among most Native American tribes, potty training began between 18-24 months of age. Many factors determined when parents believed a child was ready to begin the process.
Signs of readiness included:
- Staying dry for longer periods
- Communicating the need to eliminate through words, grunts, or gestures
- Showing interest in others’ bathroom habits
- Indicating discomfort in soiled diapers
- Attempting to imitate others’ elimination
If a child did not seem ready, there was no rush to begin intensive training. Children might continue wearing diapers or cloth wraps well into toddlerhood. Modern disposable diapers were not available, so Native Americans used natural alternatives. Diapers might be made of soft tanned deerskin or rabbit fur. Moss, grass, and cattail down were absorbent options as well.
Potty Training for Girls vs Boys
While both girls and boys were potty trained at similar ages, there were some differences between the methods used.
For girls, potty training focused on teaching them to squat or sit. Little girls wore open-crotched dresses or wraps that could be easily lifted out of the way. Their arms and legs needed to be free to assume the proper position. Mothers gently coached their daughters and praised successes. Accidents were cleaned up without scolding.
Young boys were encouraged to urinate while standing up and were taught to step away from the lodge or tipi to do so. Boys often wore no diapers or clothing below the waist to simplify the process. Fathers or older brothers acted as role models and reassured boys when accidents occurred.
For bowel movements, both boys and girls were taught to move away from main living areas for privacy. Leaves, grass, snow, or water were used for cleaning up. Hygiene was maintained by either washing with water or using a corncob wiped with grass or moss.
Potty Training Methods and Rituals
Observation of siblings, parents, and other children was an important part of potty training. Toddlers learned by watching others use the toilet area and imitated squatting or standing to eliminate. Verbal cues reminded the child it was time to use the potty spot. Caregivers made a game of it by acting out motions like pulling down pants and grunting.
Some tribes used miniature toilets carved from wood for children to practice with. Child-sized bowls copied after adult chamber pots also taught appropriate elimination place and posture. Songs, stories, and rewards were used to motivate children during training.
Rituals and ceremonies marked potty training milestones in some Native American cultures. Hopi parents gave children dried melon seeds or pieces of honeycomb candy when successes were achieved. Among the Navajo, a special song was created for the child with lyrics celebrating the new skill.
If accidents occurred, discipline was rare. Harsh punishments were seen as inappropriate and disrespectful to the child. Patience and understanding ensured potty training was a gentle transition built on praise and positivity.
Potty Training for Different Environments
Depending on the tribe and region, potty training adapted to the local climate and lifestyle. Approaches used in the woodlands, plains, desert, or Arctic varied due to unique challenges.
For nomadic tribes following game herds on the plains, potty training needed mobility. Children were taught to communicate needs to stop the group and were coached to urinate or defecate quickly before moving on. Plains people often used wooden boards with holes cut out that could be placed over pits dug in the earth.
In the cold Arctic, potties were kept indoors to avoid exposing children to extreme temperatures. Smaller nomadic groups might simply use a designated area of the igloo. Stationary villages had outhouse-style structures with multiple seats for group use.
In the rainy Northwest coast, wooden potties and chamber pots were common. Cedar boxes stored inside the cedar plank lodges absorbed odors. Grass, moss, and other absorbent natural materials were always available.
In the desert, protected latrine areas were dug away from water sources and marked with stones or flags for privacy. Children learned signals to indicate need so they could be quickly guided to the toilet site.
What Was Used for Toilet Paper?
Native Americans did not have toilet paper and used natural materials instead. Cattail down, soft moss, smooth stones, snow, grass, leaves, corn cobs, and water were employed. Resources varied regionally based on availability.
Seaweed, wet fir boughs, and monk’s-hood leaves were prime choices in the Northwest. Cattail down was favored on the plains, while yucca fiber, dried grass, and smooth rocks were Southwestern options. Birchbark, ferns, and snow served well in the Northeastern woodlands. Sticks were sometimes used after defecation to scrape and clean.
Water was the most widespread cleansing agent. Urinating after bowel movements helped rinse residue away. Coastal tribes could wash in the ocean after eliminations. Wooden bowls or flowing streams inland provided water for rinsing. Hygiene was maintained by always washing hands after toileting.
Where Did They Go to the Bathroom?
Locations for urination and defecation depended on the gender of the child. Boys were taught to move away and face away from living areas to urinate on trees, bushes, or the ground. Girls squatted close by, but still out of direct view. Special care was taken to avoid contaminating water sources.
For bowel movements, more privacy was observed. Children were taught to venture further away into the woods, fields, or desert. Latrine areas were designated based on wind direction to avoid odors blowing into camp. Holes dug into the ground or sand were covered up afterwards.
Stationary villages often had designated outhouse areas. These consisted of covered pits, shallow trenches, or chamber pots that could be emptied away from homes. Partitions or markers divided toilets by gender and family. Hierarchical tribes like the Puebloans might have different toileting areas for upper and lower status villagers.
Coastal villages used the tide to eliminate waste by going near the shoreline. When the tide went out, all traces washed away. Beach sand was ideal for easy cleanup as well. Bark or grass structures were built over toilet holes to control odors and offer shelter.
How Were Potties and Toilets Made?
For stationary tribes like the Iroquois longhouses in the Northeast, potties resembled modern chamber pots. These were carved from wood or made of tightly woven basketry coated in pine pitch as a sealant. Infants had smaller potties, while older children graduated to larger sizes. Parents emptied and cleaned potties away from dwellings.
Plains Native Americans crafted portable potties from buffalo horn that were easy to transport. Wooden potties with lids or removable bowls were another mobile option. Some were carved with small handles for children to hold.
Stationary outdoor toilets consisted of wooden boards with holes cut out positioned over shallow pits. These were moved when pits became full. Benches with multiple seats made from split logs or woven grass allowed communal usage. Walls and roofs offered privacy and protection from weather.
The Havasupai people of the Southwest made child potties by cutting the ends off of hollowed agave flower stalks. Natural agave fibers acted as a sponge inside. Gourds cut in half also functioned as portable potties.
How Were Potties Cleaned?
Hygiene was very important when cleaning potties used for potty training. Parents tried to teach children to only urinate or defecate in designated spots. Potties were emptied in waste areas far from camps and villages.
Water was used to rinse solid waste from containers. Grass, moss, leaves, or sand acted as natural abrasive cleansers. Cattail fluff or yucca brushes scrubbed insides. Potties were left in sunny spots to dry and disinfect before reuse. Chambers or bowls within multi-seat toilets were cleaned after each individual’s use.
For outdoor latrines, digging sticks helped cover solid waste after each use. Lime or ashes balanced acidity. When pits became too full, new latrines were dug and old ones filled in with dirt. This kept camps and villages hygienic and odor free.
How Did Nomadic Groups Potty Train?
Nomadic tribes like the Sioux or Comanche required portable potties for travel. Parents watched for signals from children that they needed to stop. Special child potties were carried along with other essentials.
For boys, mothers might hold an absorbent deerskin wrap that could be quickly placed beneath the child to catch urine mid-stream. Soiled wraps were cleaned later. Girls used small rawhide or woven grass potties they could squat over on the move.
For bowel movements, temporary camps stopped near water sources. Children were taught to move away from group activity areas to defecate. Natural materials like leaves, grass, or snow cleaned and buried waste until the group moved on.
Staying attuned to nonverbal cues helped avoid accidents while traveling. Children too young to communicate were held over potties at routine intervals to train their bodies. Close bonds between parents and toddlers facilitated potty training success in nomadic cultures.
What Potty Training Challenges Did Native Americans Face?
Despite generally effective methods, Native American parents still encountered some challenges when potty training:
- Frequent moves interrupted training for nomadic groups
- Harsh winter weather complicated toileting outdoors
- Limited privacy within dwellings caused distractions
- Providing enough individual supervision was difficult in large families
- Language barriers sometimes hindered communication about needs
However, close extended family units and siblings helped share responsibilities. Cultural values of patience and respect for children’s development eased frustrations over accidents. Overall, Native Americans allowed potty training to occur at each child’s own pace using creative natural solutions.
What Modern Practices Echo Native American Potty Training?
Many contemporary potty training techniques actually echo traditional Native American practices:
- Beginning based on a toddler’s developmental signs of readiness
- Using small, adapted toilets to learn technique
- Singing songs and giving treats as motivation
- Keeping training relaxed and positive through accidents
- Having older siblings demonstrate and teach
- Respecting cues and urges rather than forcing rigid timing
Native American potty training emphasizes that the process should center around the child’s needs, not adult schedules. Being flexible, attentive, and encouraging makes potty training a natural step in growing autonomy, not a struggle. These timeless principles still underlie potty training approaches that work best today.
Despite diverse cultures across North America, many Native American tribes shared core values that shaped their potty training methods. Teaching by example, focusing on rewards over discipline, and respecting each child’s abilities allowed potty training to occur organically. While specific tools and locations differed, the emphasis on building independence through caring support of children’s development remains an exemplary model for potty training success. Understanding traditional techniques provides wisdom for gentle, effective potty training that values both patience and children’s dignity.