Preschool Lesson Numero Dos: Control

Simple logic: Children don’t want to do what they need to do, unless they want to do what they need to do.

In my health club’s locker room the other day, I heard a kid crying about how he didn’t want to get in the shower, while his father said he had to because he’d been in the pool. Over and over the kid screamed, “But I don’t want to daddy!”

During my time at the preschool and studying Early Childhood Teaching, I learned a valuable lesson: kids want to control their lives more and more as they grow. The problem is this drive for autonomy pairs with their lack of anticipation. This lack of anticipation applies primarily to safety (they’ll want to climb up the slide during recess, and I’ll have to say no, because they don’t predict worst case scenarios), but it stems further. The reason why Jimmy (let’s call him) doesn’t want to get in the shower is because he can’t anticipate the fact that the chemicals and filth from the pool aren’t good for his skin or overall hygiene; his focus covers the here and now of his desires only. The same goes for when I need a preschooler to come to the art table and they don’t want to; they can’t anticipate the fact that they might enjoy the project nor predict the effect the project will have on the growth of their mind. The same goes for all those things your child might be refusing to do (they don’t anticipate that they might enjoy broccoli, that they can’t only eat candy, that they need shoes outside, that they should share with their friends, that they shouldn’t suck their thumb, that they shouldn’t sleep in your bed at night, etc.).

Luckily, their lack of anticipation can be used to the advantage of parents, because they also can’t anticipate the tricks I’m about to put in your back pocket, which will entice them into doing what they don’t want to do without them even realizing it. The key is feeding into the fact that kids, on a fundamentally psychological level (Google: Erikson, Piaget, or Kohlberg’s theories on childhood development in your own time for more information) want autonomy.

Used most often in the preschool—The Best Tactic: Try giving them two options. You have a few options when giving them two options. You can go with the time option, which works well for preschoolers. If Carli didn’t want to come paint her butterfly because she was on the carpet playing, I’d say, “Do you want to come to the art table now, or do you want to come to the art table in five minutes?” The best part is that they don’t have much of a concept of time. This method will work with high schoolers as well, when the tasks is something similar to having them clean their room or take out the garbage; of course, they’ll set their watches. It’s a trick that makes them think they’ve gained an advantage by delaying, makes them feel empowered. When you give them a choice, suddenly they feel more in control. Plus, the preparation time allows them to adjust, perhaps finish whatever game they were playing on the carpet, or send out a text about how annoying their mom is for making them clean their room.

Another option when giving options is the power play. The father at the gym might’ve tried this method. The father could’ve said to his son, “Do you want to shower on your own, or do you want me to help you?” This power play works rather perfectly. It allows the child to exert his own authority and proficiency in the situation. At the preschool, when I need a child to do something immediately, like put on their winter clothes or clean up the mess they made, I’d use this tactic. I’d either get the “I’ll do it on my own” response, or, if they truly need the help, I’d get the ‘help me’ response. Sometimes, I prefer the help me response, because a) they’ll get on all their winter gear or clean up faster that way, and b) I can teach them how to do the task more effectively. High schoolers will undoubtedly also be fooled by this power play. Most older children don’t want their mom looking through their drawers when cleaning. However, when using this option, don’t bluff. Be prepared to help them if they take the ‘help me’ option (you can use the chance to teach them how to do their laundry, how to do the dishes, how to vacuum, etc.)

Other scenarios can call for separate options, such as the art table allows me to say, “Would you like to paint the butterfly or the sun?” or clean up allows me to say, “Would you rather clean the kitchen or the blocks?” Or the father could’ve said to the son who needed to shower, “Do you want to shower here or at home?” Or he could’ve had the child choose which of the gym’s ten showers he wanted to use. The simple granting of a choice gives them a sense of autonomy that gets them to do what’s needed. Strangely, the psyche feels that it’s more free when making a choice rather than saying no to both: just like you, who when given the choice between two presidents you rather don’t like, feel a greater sense of freedom and purpose when choosing one of them rather than not voting at all.

Other ways to feed into their need for autonomy and get them to do what you need include: being impressed (the father would say, “Can you show me what a big boy you are, how you’re able to shower all by yourself?”) and offering them a privilege later (“if you shower now, we can build a Lego when we get home”).

Overall, the best way to get your kid to do what you need them to do is to mix and match this advice, focus on the situation, and understand that they’re just trying to control the situation more than you. Because in the end, you’re the one who’s trying to control, while they’re also trying to control. The more you pretend as though you’re not in control, the easier it will be to finagle them into doing what they need to do.


Preschool Lessons: Numero Uno – Tantrums

Tantrum When I first started working at a preschool, I was twenty-two years old, but I’d been working with children, ranging from the ages of seven to fourteen, at a sleep-away camp for over five years. During my time at the camp, I’d dealt with numerous tantrums, and they all had a particular reason behind them, such as bad sportsmanship, homesickness, self-consciousness, hunger, and not wanting to shower. Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to deal with tantrums is to get down to that bottom line. Why are you upset? How can I help fix this problem? Except when I worked at the preschool, I ran into a tantrum that seemed to stem from nowhere.

Our class was outside playing in the snow at the end of the day. One of the girls, standing in the snow, had the zipper of her jacket undone. I went over to her and began zippering her jacket up. She started growing more and more upset and crying. I said, “What’s wrong, Carli?” (That’s not her real name).

She cried out to the clouds, “I DON’T KNOW!!”

It’s true; sometimes not even your child will know why they’re throwing a tantrum. I would like to propose that just because the tantrum may at the surface appear to have no obvious reason, and just because even your child might not know why they’re throwing a tantrum, no tantrum is baseless. Now, that’s not to say that base isn’t something stupid and/or selfish (I once had a kid who threw a tantrum because he wanted to watch his towel dry).

I think, looking back, that Carli was just cold, or she couldn’t handle socializing around all the kids playing in the snow. Her gloves were messed up, and she had snot dripping from her nose, which also must’ve contributed to her tantrum (without a tissue, I bit the bullet and wiped her nose with my sleeve, no big deal, and gained a far more valuable lesson: if you work at a preschool, always keep tissues in your pocket). Then again, Carli was always a volatile case, so maybe something else was running through her head, something from home. Whatever the issue was, Carli’s young mind was unable to put it into words.

At its foundation, that’s how I’d define a tantrum: when a child (or teen, or adult) uses their emotions inordinately to their dialogue because they don’t know how to communicate their problem in a better way. What’s important is to teach them the skills necessary to communicate their problems better in the future.

Asking mothers how they deal with tantrums, my top two answers were ignoring them and sending them to their room. Last summer, one of the mothers of my campers said that when her son throws a tantrum, she locks herself in her own room while he bangs on the door and screams. She asked me for advice on how to get him to stop when he gets home. I said, “Unlock your door.”

At the preschool, teachers do not ignore tantrums or let them continue, nor do we send them to a separate room. By elementary school, they can be sent to the guidance counselor, where they will talk and communicate as well. When a tantrum occurs in class, or a tantrum occurs at my camp, I do what most teachers do. I get down to their level and hold their hands softly (after first getting them to stay put in one place if it happen to be a stomping tantrum). I tell them to look at me, which is something you do when speaking to troublemakers also, to take their attention. With troublemakers, tone should be serious and stern, but with a tantrum, tone should be cool and soothing.

To get Carli to calm down I said, “I understand,” even though I didn’t. I said, “It’s going to be all right.” Try these similar phrases, even if your child is trantrumming for a selfish reason, like wanting a toy. Every tantrum is situational, so what you talk about and what you say to calm them down will always be different. It is true that locking your door will also solve a tantrum (after perhaps an hour or so), but in the end, the problem won’t be addressed, and I have no doubt more tantrums will follow.

-Adam Berg


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