by Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D
Preschoolers amaze us. They are learning so much so quickly, trying to make sense of the world around them.
Preschoolers’ conversations are fascinating as they try to piece information together: looking for the sugar bugs on their teeth after they eat candy; insisting that Mommy go to time-out when Mommy makes them mad; explaining that they can’t start kindergarten yet because they didn’t meet the “dead lion” (deadline).
Preschoolers are also challenging, because they think so differently. They are often oppositional, impulsive, self-centered, inflexible and illogical—especially when upset. They have narrow and literal understanding of the meaning of words and figures of speech. Sometimes it seems adults and preschoolers are speaking different languages. Preschoolers’ actions and behavior usually make ages two through four the hardest for fathers to predict and understand.
In a typical situation, you might tell your preschooler to clean up his room, and he refuses. You tell him he’s the one who made the mess, and he argues the point, insisting that it was his 4-month-old baby brother who left everything out. Or he says he can’t clean up because his hand is too tired—a complaint accompanied by a dramatic collapse on the floor and a plea that you help. You feel confused, annoyed and clueless about what to do.
A preschooler says “no” to many requests and directions. When you insist, he will often become defiant and may get stuck in rigidity that he can’t get out of on his own. If you get rigid in response—“You spilled the water on the floor, so you will clean it up or no TV today”—your preschooler’s reaction can easily escalate to extreme frustration and anger—expressed verbally (“You’re a mean, stupid daddy!”) or physically (hitting dad with the water cup).
When your child is stuck on “no,” you might get annoyed with him and make threats or force him to cooperate. Then the attitude of opposition that normally recedes by kindergarten can get entrenched in his behavior.
Giving in and cleaning up the water yourself is not the solution, because your child must learn not to constantly challenge, disrespect and disregard your authority. If he doesn’t listen now, what will happen when he becomes a teenager?
Here are six important strategies for success:
- Phrase your directions so they sound fun and/or interesting. “Pretty soon, it’s going to be time to make some holes in the paper cup so we can take it in your bath and play.” If you can’t come up with anything, you can emphasize something he can look forward to doing when he’s done brushing his teeth. Or try having his toys “talk” to him: “I don’t want to lie on the rug. I want to be in the box with my friends, the green and blue Duplos.” Preschoolers love that. You only need to do this about half the time. He often can’t stop himself from saying no, but you can help the “no” to dissolve and become a “yes” by making it easy for him to cooperate.
- It’s also important to watch how you phrase your directions to preschoolers. Many parents say something like, “How about picking up your toys?” or, “Do you want to come inside now?” when it’s not really a choice. Preschoolers are so literal that they hear it as a question, which they answer with “no.” Phrase it as a fun and/or interesting request, not as a question.
- When you want your preschoolers to do what you ask, giving advance notice is respectful and effective: “In a little while, it will be time to …”
- It’s best to have routines and regular times for dressing, eating, tooth-brushing, toy pickup, TV watching, bed, etc, to reduce continual limit-testing.
- Spend one-on-one time with your preschooler regularly—at least weekly—doing something that’s fun for both of you. She should know you’re doing it just because you enjoy her company. This is like putting money in the bank to draw on when you want her cooperation.
- A preschooler needs enough sleep at regular times—12 hours for a three-year-old, 11½ hours for a four-year-old, 11 hours for a five-year-old. Falling short by more than an hour is a problem. Insufficient sleep triggers defiant and moody behavior. He also needs about an hour a day of heart-pounding exercise (running after a soccer ball, biking, jumping, etc.). Sleep, exercise and regular meals and snacks are essential to enable kids to control themselves better. You can help them develop these important habits.
Your preschooler needs special handling and understanding. Adapting your approach to fit his or her capabilities helps make family life happier and more satisfying. And don’t fear that you’ll need to “make it fun” forever. As children become kindergarten age, they become more rational and logical, responding to reasoning more often. Preschoolers are delightful and amazing. Enjoy them.
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and development of young children for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg is the author of the award-winning book, Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They? and her most recent book, Why Do I Have To? For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit www.PerfectingParentingPress.com.