I have a very stubborn, strong headed 3 year old. How do I teach him about earning privileges? I hope I do a good job explaining myself...

For example, I don't want to give him a treat (present, tv show, etc..) unless he has been behaving (cleanup his toys, not yell when frustrated).

I don't know how to communicate to him that his good behavior over a period of time is what counts. Not just his immediate current state.

So if I deny him his tv show because he has been a terror he will pout "I will behave", but he doesn't understand that that means good behavior over a period of time starting now.

So when he sees he doesn't get his tv show immediately on his "I will behave statement" he goes ballistic. I can't explain to him that he is not behaving anymore by throwing a tantrum. I can see in his little mind this being a catch-22, "I am presently behaved & not getting my reward".

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    "younger child" can mean so many different ages. Are we dealing with a 1yo? a 5yo? a 10yo? Apr 12, 2014 at 22:35
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    It says "3 year old" in the very first sentence. Apr 12, 2014 at 22:53
  • @ChristopherW ty... I clearly didn't see that! Apr 13, 2014 at 0:51
  • In addition to my answer, see parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/1435/… and other similar questions for more specific details.
    – Joe
    Apr 13, 2014 at 14:48
  • 3 year olds probably lack the cognition to think about time as a concept. Try asking what the child has done today or yesterday and you'll see confused answers. Putting a child under about 12 years old on a step for 5 miniutes will have the same impact as making them wait for 30 minutes. Taking an older child's phone away for 30 minites is as effective as takin it away for a day (in terms of punishment).
    – DanBeale
    Apr 13, 2014 at 18:23

2 Answers 2


This is as much a problem with adults as children. Think of your work situation. You start the year, your boss (implicitly or explicitly) says "Do a good job this year and you will get a raise". Twelve months later, you're told you didn't do a good enough job and don't get a raise.

Alternately, your boss has a list of goals, and periodically discusses with you your progress towards those goals. Every six weeks you sit down and see where you are. By the end of the period, it's not a surprise whether you get that raise or not.

Which one would you prefer? Pretty much everyone prefers the latter, and your child should also. Obvious, visual representations of the goals and progress towards them are key. Star charts are a very good option; each time he does something towards the goal, he gets a star, and he knows how many stars are needed to get to the reward. Color meters are good for behavior issues; start the day on green, positive things move it up (to more-green?) while negative things move it down (towards red). "If you end the day on green, you can watch TV. If you end on red, you can't. On yellow, you get half the normal TV time."

Further, use SMART goals (this is another business-world term): Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound. Make sure your goals are specific (not "behave at the store", but specific elements like "Stay within arms reach of me at the store, keep your voice to a normal level, and do not grab anything off the shelf we didn't ask you to take".) Make sure they are measurable - either clear binaries (do not do X specific thing) or countable limits ("Have fewer than 3 accidents"). Achievable - things he actually could accomplish, specific to his personality. Relevant - as much as possible the goal should be somehow related to the reward ("Eat at least 1/2 of your dinner and you can have dessert"). Time-bound: the goal should be limited in time and explicitly stated.

That's pretty important for kids, because they need to be able to achieve their goals most of the time. If you're setting too difficult goals (either expecting perfection when perhaps 95% performance would do, or goals that are just too complicated or inappropriate to their personality) they will fail repeatedly, and will start thinking that they are failures and/or are going to fail before they've tried - and thus won't try.

Keep SMART goals and visual representations and he will have a much easier time understanding - and will over time learn some understanding of long-term goal to reward relationships as well. Expecting a child to understand that relationship without explicit progress signals is a mistake, as it's not something adults do well with either.


The problem here is the concept of positive reinforcement, but what you do here is to accidentally "punish" your son with your rewards.

The concept of "You may only watch TV after you cleaned up your toys" does not present watching TV as a reward, but cleaning up as a punishment and lowers watching TV to a regular activity. You are basically saying "You have been bad, so you must clean your room." afterwards he regularly proceeds with watching TV. So you not only associate cleaning with bad, but also TV with "nothing special".

To "fix" that, you first need to understand what your kids expected regular daily activity is. Then you can use that against him in punishments: "You have been bad, you may not watch TV today." And no excuse will change that. While that sounds kind of harsh, you need to understand that a punishment only helps in learning, if it actually is one. If you accept an excuse you only teach him that any bad behavior can be corrected by saying three words (that's why he goes ballistic: from his POV he did what you taught him). It however is a good idea to teach him when these words should be used.

The positive aspect should be things which are outside of his regular activity. You could for example tell him that if he properly cleans up, you are going to buy him some ice cream. You can as well turn this in a regular thing and tell him that if he cleans up on Fridays, there will be ice cream on Saturdays, or something similar. But again: if he does not clean up, then no excuse will change that there will be no ice cream, not even if it is not his fault. Because otherwise having ice cream on Saturdays suddenly becomes a regular activity again.

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