Dear Dr. Debbie,

Why is it that my son’s preschool teacher can effortlessly control 12 little people at once, and I can hardly get through an hour without a conflict with him when we’re alone. He either ignores me about getting dressed, putting away his toys, washing his hands, brushing his teeth, leaving the playground, etc., or he argues and fusses that he can’t do or doesn’t want to do what I’m asking.

Just Do It

Don’t miss last week’s column Should parents of teens snoop? — Good Parenting

Dear JDI,

The preschool teacher sounds like she has had the requisite training and experience and probably the appropriate personality to manage several hours’ worth of compliance from a dozen young children at once. While it would be nice if your son automatically obeyed your requests, teacher training has moved beyond an automatic expectation of obedience to include developmentally appropriate expectations, individual differences, social-emotional needs and other contemporary understandings about children. If you observe your son’s teacher at work more closely, you will recognize techniques you can add to your parenting toolkit.

Establish a Motive

A good teacher sets up the next activity (including clean-up) with an attractive challenge — “Let’s see how many blocks you can carry to the shelf” or a teaser about what’s to come — “We’re going to read a book about a silly rabbit after we put away the toys.” At this stage of brain development, the immediate world is all that a preschooler can think about. In other words, if he is having a good time playing, he has no interest in discontinuing what he is doing.

If you could imagine operating from a mind in which “later” doesn’t exist, this makes perfect sense. You may need to exert a little effort to cajole your son into doing something unappealing, establishing the motivation that it will help to bring about something he wants to do. Your morning routine, for example — using the bathroom, dressing, eating — can be jumpstarted with a focus on something to look forward to afterward. If it’s a school day, mention his teacher and friends and help him to visualize being in the classroom or on the playground doing whatever he enjoys doing with them. He needs your help to more clearly see what is coming next and to see how his actions will lead to it.

Support His Choices

The discovery of his own mind (at around 18 months) allows your child to disagree with yours. Prior to this awareness, a baby is more concerned with expressing displeasure about a situation than scheming to counter your actions. It may look like he’s in opposition to your thoughts, but he doesn’t yet comprehend that you are having them. A young child is constructing a “theory of mind” as you put his thoughts and feelings into words for him, share your own thoughts, feelings and motivations, and explain others’ actions based on their inner worlds. All of this helps a child to understand how his own mind works, and ultimately, how to operate among the minds of others.

Pretend play is another rich experience through which your child can exercise his growing abilities to view objects and roles in new ways. Creativity is good practice for thinking in a different way, even the opposite way one had been thinking just moments ago. “Now I’ll be the Mom and you be the baby!” Likewise, parents can support their children’s creative ways to solve problems such as dressing in a mismatched outfit or with a shirt on backwards since it still satisfies the requirement of having clothes on. Similarly, leaving the playground as a galloping horse, a soaring bird, or a hopping toad — whatever he thinks he would like to be — satisfies your objective of keeping the day on schedule.

A good teacher is always giving children opportunities to make choices, whether through the perpetual action of pretend play or just deciding which toys they want to play with. Parents, too, can allow children to decide many things for themselves for example, left sock first or right sock? The more you can allow him to express his own mind, the less he will conflict with yours.

Rhythms of the Day

Cooperation is often easier at certain times of the day. Teachers stick to a schedule that flows with children’s peaks and lows for mental attention, activity level and other fluctuating abilities and needs. If you and your son are both early birds, the morning may be the best time to firm up plans for the day, tackle chores and medical appointments. If you and he are more agreeable in the evening, work the day’s heavier demands toward its end. If you and he are opposite, try to make the most of the time of day that suits each one of you, with routines established to make things easier for the one not in his or her prime time. For example, a night owl parent could set out a choice of two outfits for the early bird child to select from on his own and she can also organize the kitchen with several “help yourself” breakfast items that will give her more time to get up to speed in the morning.

Before waking a night owl child prematurely, an early bird parent could prepare a “to go” breakfast that can be eaten in the car on the way to school rather than dawdled and fussed over by a half-asleep child at the table. The goal of establishing routines and habits is to incorporate all the necessary actions of both parent and child in a pleasant and efficient manner. As your son matures, more of these actions become his own responsibility, hopefully timed for maximum success.

Clear and Consistent Rules

The best way to instill compliance in a young child is to have clear and consistent expectations. Any behavior that is unsafe, infringes on the rights of others or could waste or damage property is not allowed — ever. It takes diligence to set new rules in place, especially with 4-year-olds and children with a strong trait of persistence.

At school, children soon learn that the teacher is absolutely certain of her classroom rules and doesn’t tolerate any infractions. Likewise, you need family rules that you can enforce calmly and consistently until they are learned. Think through what your everyday unchanging rules are. They should cover health and safety (drink out of your own cup), consideration of others (use inside voices indoors, and quiet activities when someone is sleeping) and cost (turn electronic things off when you are finished). Naturally, a second parent or other regular care provider must abide by the same rule system for it to work.

Choose one of the above techniques at a time to focus on. Watch how the teacher uses it and work it into your interactions with your son. The teacher would probably be happy to help you hone your new skills. Consider it a crash course in behavior management for non-teachers.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]