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DEFIANCE

Parents of preschoolers freak out when the kid looks them in the eye and refuses to obey. One parent wrote me recently, “We have a daughter who will turn 4 next week and has turned defiant. She will simply look at us and refuse to do things we ask of her. She won’t eat at mealtimes, she doesn’t get undressed when it’s bath time, won’t pick up her toys, won’t stop doing a particular activity when we ask her to. Whether we use a normal voice or a raised voice (which we truly try to avoid), are polite or insistent, she just tunes us out and pays no heed.”

A word of reassurance: defiance is perfectly normal at this age. All preschoolers try to rule the roost and oppositional behavior at this age does not herald future delinquency. Opposition at this age actually represents a form of maturity. The child has developed a sense of independence and wants to practice using it.

However, the ways in which parents deal with defiance DOES make a difference in how harmonious family dynamics are. Many parents unwittingly reinforce normal oppositional behavior so that it goes on longer than it should.

None of us want a child without any spunk but we also don’t want to engage in brat-making either. The most prominent parental “errors” are REQUESTING instead of commanding and USING TOO MANY WORDS.

The letter mentions that the parents ask their daughter to do, or stop doing, something. All parents do this and sometimes it’s appropriate: “Will you please set the table.” But often parents make a request that really should be a command and they look silly in the process: “Will you please stop hitting your brother.”

Better to decide in advance whether it is a request issue or a command one. Obviously safety, not hitting, and obeying household rules like cleaning up the toys and getting ready for bed demand a command not a request.

I recommend parents use what I call the EFFECTIVE COMMAND. (note: see the ParenTip of the same name.) The parent is CLOSE enough to the child to make eye contact, always starts with the child’s NAME, states the rule or command CLEARLY, and uses a commanding tone of voice while speaking as softly as possible. There is no need to say please because it is a command. The army sergeant does not say, “Attention! Please.”

If the child does not obey the command, the parents must use an age-appropriate consequence. The child keeps hitting? Remove the child from the other children.

The major trouble with a request is that the child can say no. “I don’t want to go to bed!”

Another problem with constantly-requesting parents is that they keep repeating the request and use far too many words. “I’ve told you a million times to stop hitting your brother. You’re a big girl, you should know better. You should love the baby.” Blah-blah-blah. Kids tune this out or wait for you to lose your cool. Say something once and mean it.

So it is far better to say, “Samantha, stop hitting! The rule is no hitting!” in a commanding tone of voice.

When parents FEEL IN CHARGE and ACT IN CHARGE the child will learn to obey–most of the time anyhow! When parents are tentative about their role as boss, try to reason with a preschooler, or fear their child won’t be happy if they exert discipline they make a big parenting mistake.

Children who know that their parents are in charge are both happier and more secure because deep down the kids know they aren’t big enough to run the world.

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