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.