The process of potty training my daughter possesses surprising similarities to how I felt about sex when I was in high school. I had always known what sex was, thanks to a book my parents gave me when I was eight called Where Did I Come From? There was no mystery there. What I didn’t understand, until embarrassingly late in the game, was all the other stuff that happens before you get to the baby-making stage. In much the same way, I’ve always known that potty training is the transition from diapers to underwear, and there are bound to be accidents along the way, but I never knew (until now) what happens in between. I’m beginning to feel initiated.

What happens in between seems to be, like sex, different for everyone. I’m a consummate collector of other parents’ tips and tricks and in recent weeks I’ve learned that some kids get it in three days while for others it takes three months. I’ve learned that, continuing the analogy, there are many, many techniques and it’s hard to tell what might work for you until you try it. What works for Zoe seems to be many, many stickers and many, many presents. Zoe may be a three-year-old incarnation of the Material Girl, without the backup dancers.

In theory, we’ve been potty training for over a year now. When she turned two Zoe started exhibiting all the readiness signs I had read and heard about. We bought a little potty seat and a potty ring (the kind you put on top of the regular toilet so the child doesn’t fall in) for our house and for Fuzzy and Poppy’s house. We switched to pull-ups (basically expensive diapers shaped like underwear that children can hypothetically take on and off themselves). We started encouraging Zoe to go potty before bed. She was enthusiastic and willing. I thought maybe that would be it. I had heard legends of children who decide on their birthday that they’re too old for diapers and quit cold turkey. Ha. Not Zoe.

So for a year the potties in our house were primarily recreational. Zoe peed in them when she felt like it, mostly at bedtime or if one of her parents was using the toilet as well. But mostly she used her diapers. And we didn’t push it, having heard that forcing potty training is guaranteed to permanently traumatize you and your child. Then, as we approached Zoe’s third birthday, we thought we should get serious.

The month prior to her birthday, I took a potty training workshop. I sat there in a room with dozens of other parents of children ages two to four who were trying to figure out how to start, how to make progress, or how to finish getting their kids out of diapers. I felt reassured that we weren’t the only parents whose child had not magically trained herself. I took copious notes. Then the instructor mentioned that ideally you should keep major life changes (like potty training) eight to 12 weeks apart for kids. Zoe was scheduled to have eye surgery two weeks after her birthday. I didn’t want to overwhelm Zoe with stress, for sure, but I also couldn’t stand the thought of waiting until summer to tackle this daunting challenge. The instructor said we could introduce some of the concepts, but not to force the issue. We decided to be low-key.

So for a few weeks we talked potty a lot. We told Zoe she was the only person who knew when she needed to go to the bathroom, and we couldn’t figure that out for her. We discussed the virtues of underwear and the downside of diapers. The moment she turned three Zoe started referring to herself as a big kid and started asking questions like “what did I used to do when I was a little kid.” So we seized on that, talking about how big kids use the potty and wear underwear. And it worked. A little.

She increased her use of the potty, and begged to wear underwear. But she would pee in her underwear moments after she put it on, and didn’t seem to notice, or be bothered by it. Not so good. The biggest challenge was that she couldn’t be bothered to interrupt her playing to use the bathroom. Playing was her priority, understandably. We realized she had to make the switch in her head that it was more uncomfortable to wear a dirty diaper than it was inconvenient to take a potty break.

We laid off for a while, until summer. We supplied Fuzzy and Poppy and Zoe’s day care provider with many extra outfits and many pairs of underwear. We started putting Zoe on the potty a couple times an hour. We put underwear on her first thing every morning, even if it meant going through 10 pairs of underwear a day. We realized this was not going to happen in three days. We did a lot of laundry. We returned to Target a few times to buy more underwear. In case you were wondering, the fashionable varieties currently available include Elmo, Hello Kitty, Dora, and Tinkerbell. And apparently there are several Tinkerbells of different ethnic backgrounds, which I don’t really understand but I think is cool.

Knowing that Zoe responded extremely well to incentives (bedtime bedlam and drop-off drama had both been cured this way), we started offering a sticker for every time she went potty and her underwear was dry. At the end of the day, or after a certain amount of stickers, or after some other period of time depending on which parent was currently on watch, she got a present. This is proving to be slightly more expensive than I had anticipated. Fortunately I have a cache of treats in the closet, and I found a cool new toy store. And Zoe is extremely pleased with almost any kind of present.

At first I was worried that it would never happen. But over the past few weeks she has made amazing progress. She’s asked to use the potty at the grocery store, the library, and four times when we went to lunch with friends this week. She’s kept her underwear dry all day several days, and pooped in the potty many times. She even fell in the toilet today at my parents’ house and was extracted unscathed and held in her pee while my mom cleaned her up. Only a few pairs of underwear have had to be trashed. She’s only peed on the floor during a playdate once. My mom reported that she went to the bathroom about two dozen times today, and actually used the toilet about half of those times. But she’s definitely thinking about it, and getting it, and excited about it. Which is exciting to us. We still have work to do. Most of the time she goes it’s at our encouragement, but every day she takes more initiative. So she’ll be getting more stickers and more presents in the coming weeks. But I’m feeling confident that in September when she starts Montessori preschool she’ll be proudly sporting her stylish underwear like a big kid who can hardly remember what it was like to wear diapers. She’ll ask “did I wear diapers when I was a little kid?” And I’ll say “yes, can you believe it?”