My question is based on the following assumptions:

  1. I think that children learn by their success, if a certain behavior "works" to get what they want or not.

  2. In consequence: A child should never succeed getting something e. g. by screaming or a tantrum, as it otherwise has learned: "If I'm screaming (or misbehaving) long enough, I'll finally get what I wanted."

The problem: Often the child does not want to do what it is supposed to, maybe as it wants the freedom to decide itself what do to at what time.

This is not possible however, if there is not enough time to wait, e. g. in the morning if we have to go to nursery school to be there on time.

Recent example:
Our son (3.5 years) does not want to brush his teeth and we only have some minutes left until we have to leave.

In the evening I just leave him alone in the bathroom and say "call me if you are ready" and some minutes later he calls me on his own to brush his teeth.

In the morning there is not enough time and if I am afraid if we just leave without brushing his teeth, he will learn that he just has to do everything slowly to avoid this unpleasing "duty".

A similar problem is getting ready on time: If I tell him, to put his clothes/shoes on... and he does not do it, what measures are there to motivate him to do it in time?

So how could I motivate him to support me without using force?

  • This question has already received several good answers that address consequences of optional tasks. I've added another question to specifically address mandatory tasks. Hope this helps. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 14 '11 at 17:59

You've created a situation in the morning where he has no consequences for not brushing, so he's chosen to do whatever he feels like. His behavior (that he will brush at night on his own time, but not in the morning where you allow him to avoid it) suggests that it's merely a control thing. At night you let him control the schedule, so he sees no reason not to in the morning. My advice:

  • Wake up a little earlier so that you have the chance to insert something he really likes into the end of his routine -- a game, reading time, a chance to play with a special toy -- before you leave. It must be very attractive. If the entire routine isn't done in time without misbehaviors, there simply isn't time for the thing he wants to do. That extra time in the schedule also means that when behavior is bad you can afford a round or two of time-out before you leave.

  • Stop letting him control the night-time schedule. Certainly some things in life are negotiable, but personal hygiene is not -- if your child doesn't get that some things in life are not his choice at that age, you're going to have bigger problems than tooth brushing.

Unfortunately, a 3.5yo can't typically learn from delayed consequences... "you will be in trouble after school" won't work, because the consequence is too far from the response for the child to associate them. You need enough time in the morning to provide immediate punishment or reward in order to teach him proper behavior in a way that is consistent with what you do the rest of the time.

  • thanks for your answer! Solution A (wake up earlier and suggest attractive thing AFTER routines is what I wanted to do, but we were too late that day). But that's the only solution I'm seeing at the moment. – BBM Sep 14 '11 at 9:09
  • "Stop letting him control the night-time schedule". So what would you suggest for forcing him to brush his teeth (or let me do it) instantly? – BBM Sep 14 '11 at 9:10
  • @BBM You can use the exact same technique at bedtime that I suggested for mornings: build a 10-15 minute fun time into the end of the routine. It only happens if the routine gets done on time and without any bad behavior. Any refusal to comply results in a time-out. If one or more time-out is needed, there is no fun time at the end. If he stalls, he's late and there's that much less fun time to be had. – HedgeMage Sep 15 '11 at 3:27
  • ok, we do that already. Normally when he is ready for going to bed we'll read a book or story together and this is only "possible" until the end of reading time. If he delays the necessary steps before, there is no time for reading left any more. – BBM Sep 15 '11 at 10:24

When my children were younger, and sometimes now, I used a sticker chart. The one I bought had the chores pre-printed on it so I would change the tasks to the easy to do ones. Stickers are kind of an expense that I didn't want, so I started using a dry erase marker on their chart since it was laminated.

Every morning they would get checkmarks for making their beds, brushing their teeth, and brushing their hair. Then at night we would go through what happened during day care and at dinner time and they would get more checkmarks for using their manners, eating their food, and whatnot.

It helped me out a lot. Recently, I bought my kids (4 and 5) electric toothbrushes. They have brushes that play a song to let your child know how long to brush his teeth. The song will stop playing and then its time to go.

I hope this helps you.


  • Let him have his way and deal with the consequences.
    Teeth-brushing won't work so well, since the conesquences (cavities) don't occur for a while. But if, for example, you are rushing to get him to daycare and he refuses to put on his shoes, then take him to daycare without his shoes. The teacher can keep him inside while everyone is outside playing, because he can't go outside with no shoes.
  • Cancel your plans
    If you are trying to get your son ready for a play-date and he is dawdling, tell him he has [x] minutes to be ready, or you are not going. And then actually don't go.
  • When your son gets ready in his own time, all he sees now are neutral or positive outcomes (doesn't have to brush his teeth some mornings, brushes his teeth when he wants in the evening). You need to set it up so his actions have negative outcomes, even if it isn't every time.

    • that's why I chose the tooth brushing as an example: the consequence of cancelling it would be too late for him to understand. What would you suggest for teeth brushing as a "negative outcome"? – BBM Sep 14 '11 at 9:07
    • 2
      @BBM, I've created a question to specifically address such tasks: parenting.stackexchange.com/q/2916/109 – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 14 '11 at 17:58

    It might be good to learn about the various stages of childhood development and then assess where your child is. There are certain "sensitive periods" (see Maria Montessori) where a child is ready to take on certain tasks and concepts. It may be that your child is not there yet, or did not get what was needed at the proper time.

    Understanding this may assist you in figuring out how to approach time and task management - if at all. In essence, you may find less screaming (aka: I am not being heard) when you make more time to listen.

    As for the toothbrushing example, it would be instructive to know how you taught your child to brush. In our case (we have twins) for a while we did it for them. But children are natural born curious learners, and ours were quick to take over. We sang a song (in Japanese language: hamigaki), the verses of which mention the areas to brush. We turned the whole thing into silly fun. Since then the children brush dutifully.. especially our boy whose experience with dentistry - although good - was sufficient motivation.


    I developed a musical routine for my own little one. It helps keep her focused and on track, but also sets up a time limit for each task in the morning. Each task she doesn't finish in the set amount of time results in her Dad or I having to do the taks for her. Since she wants to be more independent, this routine works pretty well. The link will take you to an answer on Parenting SE where I describe the musical routine in more detail.

    I admit teeth brushing was not really a problem for us to get her to do to begin with, but getting dressed was - she took ForEver. Since if we had to dress her, we also got to pick out the most bland boring outfit we could put together for her - it has worked wonders. I'd imagine that if teeth brushing is made to be a fun thing you both do at the same time together, singing songs and making a game of it, but if he doesn't do it and you have to brush for him if he doesn't do it at the right time and you make it as boring and horrible as you can (without being mean or making it painful) a similar plan would work well for you.

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