Give the Kid a Choice

When a 3-year-old constantly defies Mom’s instructions, it can make every day a battleground. This mom asks how she can enforce boundaries and teach her son to be civilized.

Q: We have a 3-year-old son who is very loving, yet very strong-willed. His favorite word is “no,” which he often yells when we are on the phone or trying to listen to something, he interrupts when talking to adults, and he constantly wants adults to play with him. He is the only child in the home, and we try hard to provide boundaries, but where are we going wrong?

He is a stay-at-home child (dad’s home), and we recently started two days of part-time daycare to get him adjusted to being away from us. He is very social and acts his best when out of the house. He loves to play with others and has good boundaries. It’s only in the home he struggles thus far. He seems bored and needy. Last note, I am a full-time working mom who works a varying schedule of shift work. He is struggling with that and becomes very clingy. Could that play a factor?  

A: First of all, let me say I know how frustrating this is! We want our children to learn how to behave and we want them to do so sooner rather than later. As a mom of four kids, I’ve been in your shoes many times!

So let me break it down for you. He’s not quite three, so he’s still not fully able to decipher cause and effect Therefore, putting him in his room or punishments generally don’t work too well, as you’re finding out. At this age, containment works well. You remove the object or child from the vicinity when things get rocky. You begin teaching him through role-play how to act, such as “what do you do when Mommy’s on the phone?” games. You make learning fun and interesting, and silly all wrapped into one because children this age love games and silliness.

You say yes more than you say no to him by preempting his nos. For example, you can generally tell when he’s about to ask you for a snack, right? So you decide that you will say yes to him ahead of time. Or you say, “Let’s go do X” before he has a chance to ask when you see him getting antsy. That sort of thing.

You also make commands a choice between two things when possible: Do you want to hop like a bunny or jump like a frog to the bathroom to brush our teeth? He’s still brushing his teeth, but he has some choice in how he does it. It’s that little bit of choice that will help kids like your son become more obedient.

He seems bored and needy because he doesn’t want to do the hard work of entertaining himself. Dad should stay firm, give him little doses of one-on-one time throughout the day, and start helping Son develop longer stretches of self-directed play. It will be tough, but well worth it to have a child who can entertain himself.

And shed the mom-guilt over working. You do what you need to do with regard to work. Your son is fine. He has a stay-at-home parent (dad) who takes care of him while his other parent (mom) works.


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