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Negotiating with a 3-year-old — Good Parenting

Parent toddlerDear Dr. Debbie,

My bright 3-year-old is getting so good with words that she often starts negotiating when I ask her to do things. When she was 2, it was easy enough to distract her, offer her a choice or just avoid conflicts by paying attention to her eating and sleeping so she was less likely to be argumentative. What tactics do you recommend now that her logic and verbal skills are closing in on mine?

Not a Lawyer

Don’t miss last week’s column Expect messy clothes from a day of play — Good Parenting

Dear NaL,

Yes, logic and language are powerful tools! Use an approach of sensibly talking through the differences between you.


A parent-child conflict could be viewed as either a hassle or an opportunity. Obviously I’m going to suggest that you hold the attitude that any conflict is a teachable moment. At the tender age of 3 your daughter has much to learn about the world. She still operates mostly by the pleasure principal — if it wouldn’t be fun, why should I do it? And by the same token why are you constantly interfering with my fun?

Use the moment she is using the back of the couch as a balance beam to reinforce (choose one or more): that you are keeping her safe, that you love her, that the floor is hard, and that gymnastics class, or a trip to the playground, is coming up soon. Contrarily, when parents use conflict to merely reinforce that they are the boss, or that the child is challenging, the child may become more combative. Keep calm and keep parenting.

Bottom Line

Determine what your limits in this situation are for: 1) her health and safety, 2) your constraints on time and/or money, and 3) how anyone else might be affected by her choices. For example, if she refuses to wear boots after a rain, your decision should depend on one or more of these categories of limits. Before you make your ruling about her boots, think about: her general health, whether you have time to walk around rather than through puddles (and whether looking for the boots would actually cost you more time), how costly and or durable her socks and shoes are, and whether soggy socks and shoes could negatively impact anyone else.

Weigh this decision out loud so she hears how the final ruling came to be. You’ll be helping her develop decision making skills of her own.


The more practiced you become at making quick decisions, based on a relatively steady bottom line in each area of limits, the clearer your guidance parameters become. It can be reassuring to compare your parameters with other parents you spend time with to see how universal these generally are, with perhaps a few that uniquely define your family. Never eat sweets before a meal. Always leave Snuggle Bunny in the car when getting dropped off at preschool. Never take toys with metal parts into the bathtub. Always read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and one other book at bedtime. Any deviations from your consistent parameters only give your daughter hope that she can whine or wheedle you into going against your good instincts (and common parental sense).


One of the interesting facts about being 3 years old is that a whole lot is going on in her brain but she can only have one thought at a time. She may be adamant that she wants apple juice (which you are out of) in the pink kitty cat cup (which was left at Grandma’s). Your patient and constructive reaction to her distress can more quickly turn off the tears than trying to argue her out of being upset.

Her thoughts and emotions of the moment are loud in her head. Repeat your calm, comforting words while offering a reasonable solution. Call Grandma to confirm the cup’s whereabouts. Put a grocery shopping trip on the agenda (or text her other parent to pick up apple juice on the way home). Check drink and cup supplies for an immediate alternative. Quickly move on with the resolution and get busy with the next thing. A 3-year-old’s thoughts and emotions can change rapidly, overtaken by whatever is going on at present. So the sooner you (and she) are involved in something else, the sooner her catastrophe is forgotten.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has 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 drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

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

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