Dear Dr. Debbie,
My son is almost four. I would’ve thought that by now he would be more cooperative.
When I ask him to do something I either have to repeat myself several times, raising my voice each time, or just give up. These are simple requests like, “Get your shoes on,” or, “Put your toy cars away.” I really expected him to be more on the ball by now.
Just Do It
He sounds about right for his age. A child’s mind is different from an adult’s. His thoughts can be all-consuming such that your words don’t break though. His sense of time also prevents him from easily anticipating transitions such as dressing to go out or cleaning up from – and putting an end to – play time. Another developmental norm is that a young child sees things from his own point of view – unable to do tasks “for” another person. He cannot be expected to consider someone else’s needs above his own.
Knowing all this about your child can help you to have more appropriate expectations and for both of you to therefore be more successful.
Here are some techniques for gaining cooperation:
1. Get Into His Head
Imagine you need to break into a conversation between two people. This is a good way to think of your child’s attention to his own thoughts. Wait for an opportune break, such as when your son has paused after pushing one of his toy cars down a ramp and seems to be looking around for the next one to put on the ramp. Jump into the conversation in his head by making a comment that aligns with it, such as “That sure was fast. I wonder which car you’ll put on the ramp next.” Then gracefully steer the conversation (pun intended!) toward wrapping up this activity, perhaps by lining up 5 more cars for the ramp before it’s time to park them all on the shelf for the night.
Daily routines can help a child learn the rhythm of a typical day. Try to keep to a daily schedule for dressing to go out, or at least create a ritual with steps that follow a logical sequence. (It helps if shoes are always put in the same place when they are taken off.) Clean up time should also occur predictably – before dinner, or before bedtime, or whatever time of day works best. A young child needs at least a few minutes to adjust to a transition that is about to occur. Use a visual signal – put his shoes on the floor next to him, an audible signal – start running his bedtime bath, or even use his sense of taste. When I was a child, Mom would call from the kitchen for a noodle tester to check if the noodles were ready for dinner. This task usually preceded the call to, “Clean up and come to the table” by about five minutes.
Face it, a young child is ego-centric. The world revolves around him – or so he believes. Use his frame of reference to make your requests more appealing. He needs to get his shoes on to go choose fruit at the grocery store, or to get new books from the library, or to play with his friend (while you visit with yours). Add choices to be made (library stop on the way out or on the way back?) or sights to be seen (water tower, railroad bridge, etc.) if your errands would otherwise sound dreary. Landmarks are fun to note on everyday outings – see which direction the flag is blowing at the post office, check the seasonal changes in the trees on a certain street, etc. Even a health care appointment should have a highlight to look forward to – a sticker or other treasure at the end of the visit.
Instead of wishing your child could simply do as you say, consider each necessary request as a teachable moment. If he struggles to get shoes on or to put every single car away, take the time to break the task into manageable steps. Teach him to recognize which shoe goes on which foot by a distinctive feature of the shoes’ shape. Show him how to open his shoe to make room for the foot to slide in. Elastic lacings and Velcro have made children’s shoes much easier to put on, however eventually you’ll want to add lessons in tying a bow. For now, he can learn to grab each end and pull the laces tight. When it’s time for him to put his cars away, give him pointers to make it easier. Matchbox sized cars could be carried 3 in each hand at a time. A dozen cars are thus dealt with in a matter of seconds.
A task that would be effortless for you can seem insurmountable to a young child. If you approach his reluctance with a cooperative attitude yourself, you are proving to him that the impossible is indeed possible. Do the first shoe yourself. Grab the first handful of cars to put away. Try to focus on what needs to be accomplished rather than on his compliance of your request. In other words, if the shoes really need to get on his feet, or the cars really need to get put away, then get the process started! Children pick up on adults’ emotions and attitudes (and not so much on words).
Your words should be used sparingly to be more effective. “Time to get shoes on” need only be said once if your words are followed with your actions in this direction. Politely interrupt his very loud thoughts with relevant thoughts to gain his attention. Connect your request to his current thoughts and or to a motivating goal to which he would be agreeable. Remember how new he still is in the world and provide one-step-at-a-time guidance as long as he needs it. (Repetition is key to making the neural connections for learned behaviors!) Share responsibility for completing these tasks simply because this is the best way for him to understand their importance.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.