Preschoolers Playing the Odds

Today’s quote is not from one particular child client. It is a composite from the many preschoolers I have seen over the years who have been bored and restless in my office while I talk to their parents:

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Recently, a reader pointed out that I rarely write about very young children, so I decided to take heed. I put out a request on Facebook for moms and dads and teachers of preschoolers to make suggestions about topics that would be of interest to parents of little ones (or as a fellow blogger and preschool teacher extraordinaire refers to them, Tiny People).  I received lots of great ideas, most about behavior, so I decided to write about perhaps the most common parenting mistake made by moms and dads of the 2-5 crowd (and probably the 6-12 crowd as well).

Imagine this scenario. Mom has come seeking help with parenting her temperamentally challenging 4-year-old son, Jamie. They come into my office and Mom and Jamie sit together on the loveseat. The little guy sits quietly snuggled up next to Mom for a few minutes while I listen to her describe the troubles she is having with Jamie around eating, sleeping, and listening. After about 5 minutes, Jamie starts to wiggle. Mom tells him to sit still and continues to tell me her story. Jamie continues to fidget and stealthily inches his way off the loveseat. Mom reaches into her purse, hands him her cellphone, says “Here, play with that,” and keeps on with her story. Jamie takes the phone, holds it for a few seconds and then places it on the loveseat, all the while eyeing a basket of toys and books. I catch his eye, nod my head and smile, and he approaches the basket. On his way, he notices a highlighter on my desk and picks it up. Mom hears him take the cap off and tells him to put the cap back on and put the marker down. She turns her attention back to me, Jamie replaces the cap but holds onto the marker, picks up a rubber band with his other hand, and continues his slow approach to the toy basket. Mom continues to answer my questions with very little awareness of what Jamie is doing. By now, he has reached the basket, put the marker and rubber band down, and picked out two cars. He begins pushing one of the cars along the design in my rug, apparently pretending the branches are streets. He adds sputtering noises to which his mother responds by putting her pointer finger over her lips and saying “shhhhh.” Jamie continues playing with the cars and when he bores of just pushing them, he begins to crash them, complete with explosion and siren sound effects. Mom jumps up from the loveseat, snatches the cars away from Jamie, and tells him tersely, “I told you to sit still!” Jamie begins to cry. Mom looks at me with slumped shoulders and says , “This is exactly what I was referring to when I said he doesn’t listen to anything I say.”

What happened in the scenario described above happens in homes, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, and restaurants millions of times every day. Parents micromanage the behavior of young children, and preschoolers (and older kids) play the odds. They ignore most of the endless string of commands issued by parents, counting on the fact that nothing will happen as a result of their noncompliance.

Let’s see how many times Jamie’s gamble paid off. He was right when Mom told him to sit still; he continued to wiggle and left the loveseat and Mom did nothing. He was right when she told him to play with her cellphone; he put it down immediately. He was right when she told him to put the highlighter down. He was right when she commanded him to “shhhhh.”

Jamie did comply with Mom’s command to replace the cap on the marker, but it’s unclear that Mom noticed because she did not acknowledge his compliance.

So, here’s the problem. When parents issue an endless stream of commands, the vast majority of which they do not follow through, children learn to play the odds. Kids will simply ignore the majority of parental commands and continue to do what they want until Mom or Dad gets serious. It’s totally worth it to them, even if it means that Mom or Dad yells in the end.

When the scenario described above was actually playing out in my office, I was in assessment mode. My goal was to gather information from Mom while also observing how she interacted with her son. To her credit, Mom was mindful about the way she talked about her struggles with Jamie. She avoided critical language and over-generalizing terms such as always and never. She peppered in positive comments such as “He is really a sweet little boy” and “I love him to pieces.” Still, ten minutes after meeting Jamie and his mother, I had pinpointed at least one reason why Jamie is “not a good listener”: command overload.

The fix in this common scenario is fairly straightforward. First, parents need to begin making commands mindfully. My rule is only to make a command that is important enough that you are willing to deal with noncompliance should it occur. Think about Jamie’s mom; she made six commands and did not follow through on a single one until she lost her temper and re-issued the first one. In my opinion, only one of the commands Mom made was really necessary; I did not want a 4-year-old walking around my white-walled office with an open bright yellow highlighter. I was prepared to follow through on Mom’s command had Jamie not replaced the cap.

The next step is for parents to learn how to make effective commands and to follow through when necessary. Here are some not-so-good commands:

  • Would you please put down the marker?
  • I would like for you to play quietly.
  • It would make Mommy really happy if you sat with me on the sofa.

What’s wrong with these, you might ask. They sound nice and polite. In fact, they are mannerly, and it is good to model mannerly behavior for young children, isn’t it? Yes and no. Preschoolers may not get the nuance that the above “commands” (which are really just requests) have more than one right response, but older kids will. If you are making a command to a young child, it needs to sound like a command. Here are some clear commands which, when made in a neutral tone of voice, are completely appropriate:

  • Put the marker down.
  • Play quietly while I talk to the doctor.
  • Stay on the sofa.

It is very important for parents to notice and respond to whatever behavior follows a command. If the child complies, Mom or Dad should reinforce the compliance with praise which might sound like this:

  • Thank you for listening and putting down the marker.
  • It makes me really proud when you play quietly and let me talk to the doctor.
  • You did a great job sitting with me.

When young children don’t comply, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did not hear the command. At a very young age, children become adept at tuning adults out. In reality, a child who does not comply is more likely just playing the odds. The way to make it clear to a child that you mean business is to take some action to assure that the child is listening and then to restate the command with the additional information that you mean it. Here are some examples of how to do this:

  • Jamie, look at me. (Jamie makes eye contact). Good. This is the last time I am going to tell you to put the marker down.
  • (Mom touches Jamie under the chin so he looks up at her). Maybe you did not hear me before, but I told you to play quietly.
  • (Mom takes Jamie’s hand and gently guides him to the sofa). I said to sit on the sofa.

Finally it is essential to be realistic about expectations. A four year old can only be so still, or play so quietly, or stay in one place for so long. Because boredom is the cause of much misbehavior, young children should never be expected to do nothing. It is not possible. If they are expected to be quiet, then they need books or paper and crayons or even a snack. If they are expected to stay in one place, then they need plenty of entertainment within arm’s reach. And even if all the conditions are right, there is a limited amount of time that young children can maintain stillness and quiet and entertain themselves.

So here is a summary of what you need to do to help your young children be good listeners:

  1. Have expectations that are matched to your child’s developmental level and individual temperament.
  2. Make commands judiciously, only when they are important enough that you are willing to follow through if your child does not comply.
  3. Make commands that are clear, and avoid making commands that sound like requests or suggestions.
  4. Follow compliance with praise and attention.
  5. Follow noncompliance with some action to gain your child’s attention and a second, clear command.
  6. Follow a second instance of noncompliance with a consequence (more about consequences in a subsequent post; I have rambled on too long in this one already!)

It is very important to teach young children that you mean business when you tell them what to do. After all, those same adorable little preschoolers will one day be big kids and even (gulp!) teenagers. You think it’s hard to get little kids to do what you want them to do? Just wait, Mom and Dad, just wait…

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Elementary/Lower School, Preschool/Nursery School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Preschoolers Playing the Odds

  1. Pingback: In the Rare Event that a Preschooler Does Not Listen… | What Kids Want Us to Know

  2. Pingback: Top 9 Reasons Why Kids Misbehave | What Kids Want Us to Know

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