Parenting Q & A

Ellen Barrett, a parent educator at Family Connections, fields questions about the daily ups and downs of parenting. If you have questions for Barrett, e-mail her at

Q. Lately, my 4-year-old son and I butt heads over and over, all day long. If I say “stop,” he says “go.” If I ask him to hurry up, he goes into slow-motion mode. We are on opposite sides all the time. What can I do to reduce the number of battles we have every day?

A. Your son is figuring out how to assert himself in the world around him. He has many skills and a growing curiosity. He is figuring out what he likes and doesn’t like. At the same time, you are likely thinking that, at this age, he should be able to be more cooperative. These two positions are in direct conflict with each other. Adjusting your point of view, and learning a few strategies may help pull you out of this rut.

  • Figure out what motivates your son. Does he like games ad challenges? If so, find a strategic way to take advantage of that interest. Using a timer, challenge him to pick up as many toys as he can in a set time. Challenge him to dress himself before the timer goes off. Be willing to help him at first, so he can learn to speed up or accomplish even more. As he catches on, he will be able to do it alone.
  • Find a mutual incentive that will motivate him to see you as an ally: “If we pick up all the blocks now, we’ll have time to stop at the library and pick up a movie for us to watch tonight.” If the strategy is successful, make sure you follow up later with positive acknowledgement: “I’m glad we were able to watch this movie.”
  • Use teamwork. Some tasks might seem overwhelming for your son. If he knows he won’t have to clean up his room alone, or that you will help him find his shoes, he might be more willing to try.
  • Give him limited choices. Tell him it is time to go to bed and ask, “Would you like to wear your train pajamas or dinosaur ones?” This strategy enables him to make a choice and take control, but within limitations that satisfy you, too.
  • Allow for transition. If you know that you need to leave the house soon, give him some attention and notice. For example, if he is watching TV, sit with him for a moment, watch with him, and show interest in what he is watching. Ask a few questions about the show, and anticipate a good stopping point. Then give him time to transition.
  • Keep things neutral. The more your emotions escalate, the more he will resist. Let natural consequences unfold—no family movie that night or a play date is cancelled because of uncooperative behavior. Understanding that there are consequences will help him internalize your expectations.

Finally, pick your battles carefully. In any given day, there are probably many instances when you could readjust your priorities and let some things go. Remember, he’s only four years old.

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Volume 5, Issue 2, Posted 3:31 PM, 02.01.2012