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I've recently observed a lot of parenting and I must admit that it's left me baffled and overly cynical. My primary question is this: What do you do when a pre-schooler, say 4-5 years old, refuses to perform routine tasks? I mean the sorts of things that they've already done nearly 100 times by this age. Furthermore, I'm only referring to cases where you tell them to do something and they don't do it. The child has clearly heard you, they don't argue, and tantrums are not an issue here. The problem is that they simply do not do the task.

I'll use the example of telling them to get changed. After your first instruction has failed, I've seen the following unsuccessful approaches:

  • You threaten them, the child understands that they're being threatened and cries. Now that they are crying, they are no longer able to complete the task in question.
  • You try to reason with them and explain why it's in their interest to complete the task. As their age is in the single digits, this fails.
  • You lie and hope that they fall for it without it causing them to distrust you or believe ridiculous things. This is at best a risky approach.
  • You exercise the patience of a saint, and repeat your instruction again and again until it is followed. Assuming that you have this patience, this approach will fail as soon as you're on a time constraint.
  • You seek a medical solution of some sort. As your child is usually probably not significantly ill, this probably fails.
  • You offer them some sort of reward for the task. Even if this works, it is not sustainable and will eventually fail.
  • You give up and do the task for them. This is an automatic failure.

What other sensible approaches exist? For fear of this being an opinion-based question, note that I'm not asking for a best approach, I'm only looking for a summary of what methods are often suggested in the literature or are used in practice.

  • Are you looking for an authoritarian approach that works every time? How to "produce" an obedient child? Or to just get it done? There is no one way for multiple situations. Some tasks call for rewards, some call for immediate obedience (get away from the road!), some call for consequences, some for patience, some for some kind of help, etc. Each approach (except lying) is valid in different circumstances. – anongoodnurse Aug 2 at 15:00
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I think my first question would be: why are they refusing on this occasion? Has something changed recently? Are they scared of something? Did they get hurt on a previous occasion? Without knowing more about the task in question I can only speculate, but these are the kinds of questions to ask. (Since you mention "getting changed", I'll add that the beginnings of body modesty may be an issue at this age.)

The objective here is not to "reason with them" but to ask questions and listen. The child may well have a reason for not complying which seems perfectly good to them, but which they have difficulty communicating. Therefore the first thing to do is to find out what that reason is.

Hopefully once you understand the child's point of view you will be able to find a way forwards.

Of course this isn't always possible. If you need to get the child ready for an appointment then you don't have time for this, so say "We'll talk about this later" and do the changing yourself. This is not a "fail", its a strategic retreat. You can then tackle the problem again later when everything is calm.

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  • Upvoted this excellent answer, but it might fall into the (false) "As their age is in the single digits, this fails" category. Kids are smart. If we actually listen to their answers, we discover they are much smarter than we believed, and sometimes have good reasons for not complying with requests. – anongoodnurse Aug 2 at 15:06
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Such "regressions" in behavior at this age are very common and often pass without any substantial efforts on behalf of the parents.

I would start with asking yourself the question that, sadly, parents rarely ask: "Is this task even necessary?" Sometimes it turns out that the it is not. To use your example, it is sometimes not necessary for the child to change clothes, and they will be okay to continue just as they are. For example, when going to play outside in the summer rain, if getting all wet is not that big of a deal to anyone, why make the child change into the rain jacket and rain boots? For the rest of the answer, let us assume that the task is actually necessary. :)

As mentioned by @PaulJohnson, try to find out why the child refuses to do the task. Sometimes there is a reason, which you can only find by talking it through calmly. Seeing the situation through the eyes of the child will help solve the issue.

Sometimes helping the child with the task a few (or more than a few) times will give the necessary boost, even if the child is perfectly capable of doing everything on their own, and has done so hundreds of times.

I also found that the having the right setup that precedes the task, and praising the child for doing the task afterwards are very helpful. Most other things that you mentioned, especially the punishment, are not very helpful in my experience.

I found the Kazdin method (Kazdin and Rotella, 2013) and its variations to be particularly effective. Let us use getting changed as an example. Give the child enough time to finish what they are doing and transition to the task you need them to do, for example say: "Please finish drawing, in 10 minutes we need to leave and you will need enough time to change." When the time approaches, ask again, also calmly and politely, with eye contact and being at the eye level with the child. These antecedents (everything that precedes the desired behavior, the setup for the behavior to occur) are probably the most important part of getting the behavior you want.

The other important part is praise. Praise both the completed task and any step toward getting it done. In this case, praise even if the child only changed the top, and you had to help them change the bottom. Sometimes, games and simulations of the actual behavior have to be done, when everyone is in a calm emotional state. Praise the simulated behavior just as if it were real.

Praise has to be very particular - not the ordinary praise, which is fine for any other occasion. The praise has to be immediate (right after the behavior), enthusiastic (genuinely excited, effusive), specific (say what the child did right), close (be next to the child) and accompanied by touch (for this age, add a hug, a high five, etc). For example, say enthusiastically: "Good job, you changed the shirt!" and hug.

Note: when praising, avoid "caboosing", that is, adding something like "Why can't you always change on your own like you did now?" - this reduces the effect of praise.

REFERENCES:

Book:

Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013: https://www.amazon.com/Everyday-Parenting-Toolkit-Step-Step/dp/0547985541/

Videos:

Everyday Parenting - Praise Technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lK9L8r2U1XE
Kazdin method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vp6khwx2zv0

SEE ALSO:

https://parenting.stackexchange.com/a/39379/33055

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  • This is the answer I came here to write. +1! – stan Aug 3 at 7:56
  • Nice details and sources! – Joe Aug 3 at 18:59
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I think one key here in addition to the other great answers is to focus on whether you need the task completed now, and having different approaches based on that.

Tasks that need to be completed now would be something like putting on clothes/shoes before going to school/church. You have a deadline, and it's necessary for the child to accomplish the task before that deadline. There is a consequence if they don't do it - and I don't mean a punishment for them, I mean something negative happens if they don't do the task - like being late for school or church.

Tasks that do not need to be completed now are tasks that you want them to do, but there's not really a negative consequence to anyone if they don't, or at least not a major one. Flushing the toilet is a good example of this. Yes, it needs to be done, but if they don't do it right now, maybe it smells a bit but it's not a huge deal - probably someone else will come along and use/flush it before it becomes a true problem.

For tasks that do not need to be completed immediately, I find the most effective strategy is simply to ask them to do it, and let it go undone; but make them doing the next thing they want to do, contingent on doing the task. If they want to play with blocks, but haven't flushed the toilet, I remind them the toilet needs flushing before they can do that; but I don't sit on them to do it, just reminding them that's how it is. Eventually, they'll do it, and then move on. No time pressure on my side, no pressure really at all, other than the gentle reminder to do it, and the restriction of their next activity. Sometimes it'll take a few hours the first time, where they just lay about and don't do it, but eventually they do, and the fifth or tenth time it becomes routine - at least to do it upon being asked, even if they still don't remember to do it themselves.

For tasks that do need to be completed in a timely manner, I do two things. One, set up the task as far ahead of time as possible, so it's not a "urgently get this done now" - it's closer to the other category, if at all possible. Don't try to get them dressed five minutes before you leave - do it fifteen or thirty minutes. Even an hour ahead. For my (7yo and 9yo) kids, we bike to gymnastics twice a week; it's a 15 minute ride, but I have us leave 30 mins early, because I know that about half the time it takes us that much longer to get ready. I also tell them that's what I'm doing - and let them know that if they start being very reliable in getting ready, we can leave closer to the time and have more game playing time beforehand.

Two, is if they don't do the thing in the time period allotted, I will do it for them, as minimally as possible, and then set up next time to have more time available for the task. Especially at 3 or 4, it's not their fault you were running late, it's your fault; you should be allocating the time needed. When it doesn't work out, you take care of it.

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