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Class sensitivity and toilet training

Before I started practicing family law I never really understood why some folks pushed toilet training on their toddlers. While no one enjoys changing diapers, it’s really not that horrible. Further, most children will eventually toilet train themselves–especially if they attend a preschool where other kids are already trained. If the unpleasantness of a loaded diaper doesn’t motivate them, peer pressure will (even two-year olds respond to peer pressure). Few children who don’t have developmental delays get long past their third birthdays still in diapers.

In contrast, the drawbacks of pushing toilet training on an unwilling toddler have become a cultural meme. There’s a reason the age is called “the terrible twos”: as children develop a sense of personal autonomy they exercise that awareness through defiance against authority figures. “No” is a perennial favorite word among the toilet training set. Getting into a battle of wills with a toddler reminds one of the warning against wrestling pigs: you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it. Engaging such battles never made sense to me, especially when balanced against the ease of letting the child toilet train naturally. The children who remain in diapers long after they turn three are often the children whose parents battled them over toilet training.

…And then I started practicing family law. Early in my career I frequently represented working-class folks or women on AFDC. Preparing their financial declarations, I would see that 10% of their net income often went towards disposable diapers. If they had two toddlers in diapers, this expense could approach 20% of their net income. Suddenly the desire to push a child into early toilet training made complete sense.

The moral of this tale–if there is one–is that assuming that clients have the same values as family court attorneys is a hindrance to good lawyering. Family court litigants rarely come from the same social class as family court attorneys.  Most attorneys come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds.  Even attorneys who rose from poverty or working-class backgrounds typically develop a bourgeois mind set.  A push for early toilet training from an attorney who earns $100,000 or more a year looks very different than a push for early training from a mother getting by on one-tenth that amount.

Misjudging a client’s functional behavior as dysfunctional is sometimes the result of failing to appreciate a client’s different class background.  Cognizance of this can lead to more effective lawyering.

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  • California Observer

    Wow, Greg, that is an awesome post, a sterling example of how unconscious cultural assumptions can weight down people who are only trying to do the best for their family under difficult circumstances. I hope every attorney reads it.

    But why not ask every judge to read it too?

    • Pushing reading material on judges is something other folks, with more authority than I, might do.

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