My 4-year-old son tends to default to saying no changes in activity (even if he is clearly no longer interested in the current activity). Overall he is helpful, considerate, and will do things we ask around the house but he will just generally dismiss any proposed activity if it isn't the one we are currently doing. This is even true for things that we know he likes and has done before (e.g., going to the pool).

Generally we can get him to go along with some cajoling but the ensuing battle will often take on a life of its own independent of the conflict. Further, it doesn't seem a battle is the best approach every time we want to do something.

I don't expect or want blind obedience but rather for him to base his opinions on a genuine consideration of what we are doing not just defaulting to no.

What is a more constructive way to approach changes in activity to avoid default contrarianism.

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    We found two strategies worked well. 1: give 5 minutes warning before its time to stop, and 2: explain what is happening. E.g. "We're going shopping to get food for dinner", not just "We're going out so put your coat on". Jul 7, 2015 at 16:34
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    "Do you want to eat your vegetables?" "NO!" "Do you want to take a bath?" "NO!" "Do you want to go to bed?" "NO!" "Do you want a cookie?" "NO!" ... slowly dawning look of horror Worked for my parents with me. Jul 8, 2015 at 2:56
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    @DanNeely Smart children will get a cookie out of a strategy like that...take or leave from that what you will.
    – Zibbobz
    Jul 8, 2015 at 19:28
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    @Zibbobz - If "Do you want a cookie?" is answered with "Yes", then the parent's next line is "Well if you eat your vegetables you can have a cookie."
    – AndyT
    Jul 9, 2015 at 10:28

3 Answers 3


Often the solution here is as simple as reframing the request. So if he is playing with blocks and it's time to leave for school, no matter how much advance notice you give and no matter that you leave for school at the same time every day, when you announce "time to leave for school!" he may well resist and refuse and generally push back.

So try asking him a question and giving him control. I have seen amazing success with literally asking "which shoe do you want to put on first?" or "shoes first or coat first today?" (You may have encountered a version of this when a sales person asks you whether Tuesday or Thursday would be better for them to stop by and demo their product to you.) I expect you disbelieve. I know I did. Try it once and let me know. Prepare to be amazed. Since you don't intend to discuss whether or not you are going to school, to the pool, to the dinner table etc, why introduce it as a topic? If a totally out of context shoe question would be weird, then "School time! Shoes first or coat first?" works well. You can also ask "do you want 5 more minutes of X before we leave for Y, or just go right now?" but if he doesn't choose "Right now" then you may have an issue in 5 minutes.

I also had good success with natural penalties for dawdling. Simply leave 5 or 10 minutes of extra time before any transition. For example, if you're headed to school, plan for 5 minutes in the park on the way. Any dawdling will cut into park time. No dawdling, 5 minutes in the park. In your case it's not so much dawdling as resisting and delaying, but whatever. Many families do this with number of bedtime stories. Head up now, it's 4 books. As time goes by it's 3 or 2 (don't let it get to none you will both be unhappy.)

Kids that age want to control their lives. If the only control you offer them is to say no to your requests, that's what you'll get. So offer them something (something real) and you'll both be happier.

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    Giving control works well, along with acknowledgement of their desires, and an implied warning of what will happen should they choose not to get ready. "I understand you want to keep playing, and I'm sorry this is interrupting your activity, but we have to go, so do you want to put your coat on by yourself, or shall I help you with it?" The choice is still theirs, but they understand that the next step if they continue to refuse is that I will be getting them ready to go, and they lose a little autonomy during the transition to the next activity. I don't do this for unimportant things.
    – Adam Davis
    Jul 8, 2015 at 13:26
  • that's a slightly different kind of choice, and not what I'd go to first, but yes, you can end up there
    – Chrys
    Jul 16, 2015 at 1:32

I don't know if it's the case for you, but one thing I see a lot of parents of strong-willed children do repeatedly is ask a question, then get frustrated when the child answers in the negative. If a negative answer is not acceptable, then don't ask a question! Reserve questions for when you are honestly okay with any response.


Do you want to go to the pool now?


It's time to go to the pool now. Put on your bathing suit, please. Which one are you going to wear today?

Even better is if you can involve him in the planning. Kids are people too. They like to have a say in their lives, even if there are large parts of the schedule they cannot change. A conversation like the following can be helpful:

I want to go to the pool today when they open at noon, then afterward have a quick lunch and take a nap. What do you want to do before that?

Also, kids aren't very good at creating their own closure. Try to give them plenty of warning, and help provide a sense of finality about the current activity:

After the trains go around the track 5 more times, they will be done, then we can get ready to go to the pool.

Be prepared to negotiate the definition of "done," within reason.

You can also have a consequence for a bad attitude, but I try to do this only after every other consideration, because their feelings are valid even if the behavior isn't:

Are you stalling and complaining because you only want 4 more times around the track?

Another very effective and more natural consequence is simply to miss out on the new activity:

I told you it was time to get ready, but you didn't, and now there isn't enough time.

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    "If a negative answer is not acceptable, then don't ask a question" This was the first thing I thought when I read the OPs question. I've found restricting choice can sometimes lead to a happier outcome for everyone (particularly regarding meal-time menu choices).
    – spender
    Jul 7, 2015 at 18:56
  • Agreed about the sometimes. It's important to allow choices whenever feasible. Jul 7, 2015 at 19:05

Usually, kids tends to accept change better if they're prepared and know what will come. I would then go that way and expose the short-term planning to him : now you can play there, but in 30 minutes we'll be going to the pool, then to the movie. Once at the pool, be a bit more accurate : around 3PM we'll be going out the pool and go to the movie, and so on.

Of course it doesn't let much space for spontaneity, but you should already be seeing an improvement on day-to-day tasks, and then probably be more an more spontaneous. Note that not all adults like spontaneity neither, that's no necessarily a quality, some planning is sometimes helpfull :-)

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