My 4-year-old shows impressive stubborness and singlemindedness. While it is sometimes clear, often I find it hard to tell if I'm looking at: "I'm four years old and surprises make me insecure" or "I'm the resident dictator, all shall bow to my will". My gut feeling tells me these are different things and should be dealt with differently.

Two examples: we go to the zoo and I see the parking lot nearest the enterence is almost full so I drive to the next parking lot with many empty spaces. Son starts crying he wants me to park at the parking lot "where we always park". I hate parking so I go to the empty one.

He cries and screams, I have to drag him out of the car (first I run around the car trying to catch him, while he is inside the car and tries to evade me). He continues to cry in the parking lot on his bicycle on the way to the zoo, so I finally cave in. I put him and his bike back in the car and drive to the parking lot with few empty spaces. All is well. I ask him why it's such a big deal and he cannot really tell me why but he says it's a big deal.

Now the other one: I put jam on a slice of bread for breakfast, I'm almost done as he declares he wants me to put peanut butter on the other half. I tell him I have finished this slice of bread I will put peanut butter on another slice. He starts moaning and crying: he wants me to throw it away and do one half-half. It ends with time outs on the stairs, lots of crying and him throwing stuff and finally he eats his breakfast and we're late for school.

Sometimes it starts out when he asks for something I will happily accommodate, then slowly increases his demands until he either wants something he cannot have or he has annoyed me so much I decide I will not give in to everything he asks. But when he only gets 80% of what he has asked for he will think of something new. Rinse repeat.

Should I not seek confrontation when he displays quasi-autistic behaviour (like in the parking lot)? How should I deal with unreasonable demands and are they the result of too much freedom to choose in general? I have always believed that he can do what he likes as long as he is not doing anything dangerous or terribly inconvenient. If he wakes up and says he wants to go to the swimming pool, and we are free to go, then we'll go.

  • Do you ask before you put the spread on?
    – SAM A
    Feb 8, 2018 at 2:55
  • No, he just made it up when i was almost done.
    – Ivana
    Feb 13, 2018 at 21:18

4 Answers 4


Zoo I would tell him parking when there is lots of cars scares you. "So we will drive through our normal parking and if mummy can't find a nice parking space we'll go to the other one" It seems important.

Breakfast butter the toast/bread and A_ ask what he wants- all jam, half and half, one of each. Or B "Are you having jam or peanut butter today" I suspect like @aneder said he's trying to find where the boundaries are. I think you should limit him to A or B choices often. I actually have an autistic boy so in my house that can look like. I pick up the sweatshirt he wore yesterday [blue] Vocal disagreement Spot the green one & and offer it instead More unhappy noises Hold each sweatshirt in a hand & inform him he has to pick one He indicates which one he really doesn't want to wear. Any further objections are shut down by informing him he chose this one.

Save the unlimited power for which order to look at the Zoo animals, what playground equipment to play on.

Also "mum can't hear you when you whine, you need to ask nicely"


This sounds very much like my son (nearly three). I, too, am willing to accommodate him if and as long as his wishes remain reasonable; but ultimately, it doesn't matter if he protests out of age-related stubbornness or acts out of bad behaviour - your reaction needs to be the same, firm but loving boundaries.

In the parking lot case, I would have listened to his complaints, validated his feelings, and then (briefly!) told him why you chose to park there and won't park in the other parking lot, but if he hadn't stopped after a while, I would have given him the choice to continue crying and go home immediately, or stop crying and go to the zoo; this usually helps surprisingly well with my son (he knows we always follow through). Yes to confrontation in this case!

In the second case, I've found that, as you've noticed, once he asks (and gets) a thing, he'll ask for another, and another, and another. I think the trick is to announce that he may ask one or two (max. three) things, and then stick to that. It sounds very much like he's overwhelmed by all the things he could ask for, all the choices he could make.

I get the difference between age-related stubbornness and bad behaviour; but ultimately, the latter develops out of giving in to the former.

  • Agree with Little Ms Whoops. My only addition is that if a certain behavior nets the child what they desire, expect more of that behavior. Call it Pavlovian, call it learned, call it whatever you wish. But if there's a behavior that you want to discourage, then that behavior should not result in positive benefits for the perpetrator of the behavior.
    – John Doe
    Feb 6, 2018 at 0:09
  • I'm not entirely convinced. Sometimes, like in the parking lot, it seems to be a desire to keep things organised and predictable. My guess is he will grow out of this Rainman phase and there is no need to push him.
    – Ivana
    Feb 13, 2018 at 21:28
  • "It sounds very much like he's overwhelmed by all the things he could ask for" <- good point!
    – Ivana
    Feb 13, 2018 at 22:15

I totally relate to your experience! Honestly, I think your child's behaviour is totally normal. Try to see it this way : he's still a small boy trying to figure out how the world works, and he does it by experimenting. He constantly tries new behaviours and learns by your reactions what is acceptable or not, and what will make him get his way (kids are very, very good at that and learn very fast).

As a parent, it is your role to set boundaries and stick to them. Consistency is the key: if he sometimes get his way by doing a certain thing, then sometimes not, he will probably still continue the behaviour just to see what will happen. If it doesn't work, he will eventually stop... Then someday he might find a new way to test the boundary again, and you may have to readjust. The joys of parenting! Confrontation is unavoidable at some point. When I feel that a tantrum is building, I offer empathy and give an explanation of why it is this way (keep it short and to the point, one or two sentences). Then I just keep going. Sometimes it diffuses the situation. I also state what will happen if the bad behaviour continues, then stick to it (you might want to think about it beforehand, because in the heat of the moment it is not always easy to come up with).

I also agree that too much choices could be overwhelming for him and encouraging him to act out to find the boundaries he needs. I would advise to let him have control over some "easier" things, like you could ask him what he wants for breakfast and offer choices that are acceptable to you. Consistently having control in these little aspects of his life will give him some of the power he seeks and a safe place to practice important skills like decision making.


If your son is throwing a tantrum, it is because he thinks it will help him get what he wants. My son sometimes does this, but rarely (because he knows it won’t get him what he wants).

In the case of the zoo - “we came here to have fun, and if you’re going to throw a tantrum then it won’t be fun, so we will have to go home. You have x minutes to decide what you want to do.”

In the case of the breakfast - “I am helping you by making your breakfast. If you want something specific, you need to tell me before I start making it. For now, if you don’t like what I made, you can make your own breakfast, but we are still leaving for school on time whether you have eaten or not.”

Some other useful phrases: “if you can’t leave the park/pool/party/play-date when it’s time to leave, then we can’t come back next time.”

“Do you need some time in your room to calm down? Or can you calm down out here?”

I’m not saying to dispense with compassion, but being a parent is hard work, and it’s even harder when your child prevents you from making efficient choices. Do what works best for you - sometimes that means your kid can weigh in, sometimes it doesn’t. I would say it’s best to always explain why you’re doing things a certain way, and make it clear that he always is free to ask and expect an answer, but also be clear that the only tool he may use to change your mind is cool logic.

Edit: My son is about to be 4, but this has been an effective approach since he started talking, around 14 months.

  • "being a parent is hard work" you are so right, also it really requires the parent full concentration otherwise it fails completely. I find the only way i can be firm is if i'm completely focused. Otherwise he'll be crying and i'll be pulling my hair out.
    – Ivana
    Feb 13, 2018 at 21:33

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .