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My son loves balance bikes. He got his first one with 2 and second (larger) with 3. Every morning he could choose whether he wanted to use the old or new one for the way to kindergarten, and he mostly chose the new one. He is currently 3 years and two months old.

Around a month ago we went to the playground with the new balance bike and some sand toys. He played. When the time came to collect the sand toys, he did not want to help collecting them. I told him that if he leaves them there, other children will take them and he will not have them any longer. He was upset, close to a tantrum, and said he does not want them any more and other children should take them. I said okay, then that's how it will be. Then I told him to take his balance bike. He wanted me to take it. I said no, YOU wanted to bring it along so YOU take it back home - or you leave it there, then other children will take it and you won't have it any more. He was really unhappy with the situation, he desperately wanted me to take care of his stuff (but I refused, trying to teach him responsibility), he started crying and again said he does not want it any more and other children should have it. I asked him if he was sure about this, since I see how much he likes it, but he stood by what he had said (but heavily crying). So we went home without the sand toys and the balance bike. A bunch of older children witnessed our argument and tried to help by carrying the balance bike after us, but my son loudly protested, so they stopped and put it down again. He cried for really long, on the way home and at home still, totalling around 20-25min.

After we had arrived home, I went back (without telling him) and picked up the toys and the bike and stored them somewhere where my son could not find them, so that in his view, they were actually gone, but that I could give them back to him later. In fact I don't mind having "lost" the sand toys permanently; he has plenty more. But the bike is, I think, too precious for him to permanently having "lost" it due to just a heated moment.

The next day we checked the playground again to confirm that the toys and his bike were gone. Over then next week, we tried to make him aware of the consequences of his actions by calmly reminding him (e.g. by saying "Which bike to you want to ride today? Oh, I forgot, you only have one. You left your larger one on the playground, remember?"), not too often but so that the lesson had time to sink in. Then we stopped talking about it for 2 weeks.

Recently - he and I were both in a neutral/collected mood - I asked him if he missed his large bike, and he said yes. I told him that I know a girl in the neighbourhood who found it and took it as hers. I offered him to ask her if she will give it back, and he said yes. The next day I told him that the girl said "No, it's mine, I found it", and that she was right, that stuff lying around belongs to nobody and anybody finding it can keep it. He was sad and said again that he would like to have it back. I told him that I will try to speak with her parents, maybe we will find a way to get it back, but I can not promise anything.

You see I have tortured him for quite some time in order to teach him a lesson. I plan on giving it back to him soon, but I am not sure how. I could easily invent a story where the girl just gives it back, but is that a good way?

My goal is that he knows

  • he is responsible for his belongings.
  • if he does not take on that responsibility, he cannot expect to keep his belongings.

How can I give the bike back to him without him learning "even if I do not take responsibility for my belongings, I get them back sooner or later"?

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    The lies… are a dark way to teach someone something other than that you can’t be trusted and that you use deception to hurt his feelings. Would you be open to an answer that disagrees with your approach?
    – anongoodnurse
    Jul 19 at 14:50
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    @anongoodnurse Yes, I am open to that.
    – Kjara
    Jul 19 at 19:38

4 Answers 4

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You've gotten very good responses from everyone who answered. If you're open to hearing more, I'd like to offer some perspective.

Culture matters. This way of parenting (it's in line with authoritarian parenting) is probably more common where you live. If so, you can't exactly be faulted for following your cultural influences. But you can buck the system.

People often parent the way they were parented; it's a default setting. Unless you very much resented the way your parents raised you, it's the norm. If people do have issues with their upbringing, they will find a different way, but in a moment where a snap decision needs to be made, fall back to the default position. So, practice, practice, practice, learn to pause before making snap decisions, and recognize that you can change your mind upon reflection.

How to get your child to be responsible for their possessions at three? At three, this is just beginning.

the normative sense of obligation first emerges in human development in joint commitments to, and a sense of fairness with, collaborative partners at around 3 years of age.

The range is 3-5, but 3 is common.

The question is not how to teach them a specific something, but rather, what kind of person do you want your child to become? The way you have been handling this is hurtful, and I can think of nothing positive that will come of it. As pointed out by others, it can backfire.

You mention "dear" objects. One way you can avoid worrying about dear/expensive objects is by not having any, or at least, having fewer of them. Why not walk to the park? Probably because you want to please your child by giving him a precious object he will enjoy. If so, why are you trying so hard to make him unhappy about it? Is not your child dearer than the object? If so, begin by prioritizing what is "dear" in your mind.

Other tactics:
-Cut your playground visits shorter so that he still has energy to gather his things, etc.
-Consider transactional conversations, e.g. "Do you want to ride your bike to the park? If you say yes, remember you will have to ride it back." When he doesn't follow through, explain: "If I carry it back, I will be too tired do everything I need to do. How will you help me when we get back?" Suggestions welcome. If he doesn't follow through on that, then next time he wants to ride the bike to the park, remind him of his choices last time, and gently do not allow.
-Reward good behavior: have a small treat for him if he does what you have asked without much fuss. All people like positive reinforcement.
-Have a place for everything and a routine for putting everything in its place. ("The bike doesn't belong in the playground. Where does it belong? _____ Let's go home and put it there. Then we can rest.")
-Etc.

Read about the different styles of parenting. Authoritarian is...common and not very good for the child (I can cite literature if you request, but it's pretty well documented, so I'll leave it at that.) You might be suited to Authoritative Parenting. It's much more difficult, but also much more rewarding for everyone. It will give you tools to accomplish what you actually desire: for your child to take initiative and responsibility willingly and to have a sense of accomplishment in doing so.

The Normative Turn in Early Moral Development, Sept. 2018, DOI: 10.1159/00049280
The authoritative parenting style: An evidence-based guide

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You see I have tortured him for quite some time

You sure have.

in order to teach him a lesson.

What lesson? At this point what exactly do you want him do and what are you trying to achieve? He already feels bad about this, do you want to him to feel worse ?

Look, 3 years is still very young and kids learn in small steps by trial and error. If at first you don't succeed try again. And again. And again until he gets it. Praise the successes and don't make a big deal out of the failures.

After a long day on the playground he probably was just tired and overwhelmed. Not a good time to pick a fight. You could have simply said. "Ok I see you are too tired to carry your bike home. But it's your bike and not mine and this is your job. If you can't do it, I will do it for you but then we'll have to put it away for a week until you are a little stronger. Than we can try again"

Rinse & repeat until he gets it. If need be, you can increase the time outs, or make them shorter for getting half way home.

I could easily invent a story where the girl just gives it back, but is that a good way?

In my opinion lying is one of the worst things you can do as a parent. It erodes the trust foundation which is a very fragile thing and really, really important especially once they are teenagers. So you feel that not taking care of toys is a problem, but lying is ok? I can't say that I agree with these priorities.

Here is what I would do: come clean and tell him the truth. That you wanted to teach him lesson and didn't tell him what really happened. Tell him that this was a mistake on your part and that it will never happen again. And here, by the way, is your bike.

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Bluntly, I see a lot in this that reminds me of my worse interactions with my older son. You're escalating conflict, and that's not something you want to do nor something you want to teach. Trust me, this is not something you want, either in the now or in five or ten years. De-escalate, give him space to learn his feelings and express them. If your instinct is to immediately have a significant consequence because a three year old has a loss of self control, you're headed in a dark direction that won't take you anywhere you want to be.

What it sounds like to me is that the child was tired from a long day at the park, and he couldn't handle his emotions right then, because he was three, and probably needed a nap, or a snack, or just some quiet time. Instead of giving him that, you pushed him to learn a lesson he wasn't quite ready for. Sure, it's great for children to learn responsibility over their things! But the question you should always ask is is this the time to teach the lesson - and the way you answer it is, will the child be ready to learn the lesson. If they're not - because they're too young, too immature, or too tired - then don't teach the lesson right then. Wait for a better time. That better time might be tomorrow, or in a year - you have to figure that part out; but don't rush lessons because you think you want them to learn them, when they're not ready.

In this case, you can teach them a different lesson, when they're ready for it: teach them how to apologize for lying.

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Oooo...tough situation. I agree with @Hilmar "Ok I see you are too tired to carry your bike home. But it's your bike and not mine and this is your job. If you can't do it, I will do it for you but then we'll have to put it away for a week until you are a little stronger. Than we can try again"

I will add...that teaching kids that "stuff lying around belongs to nobody and anybody finding it can keep it" is wrong. The lesson should be, stuff lying around belongs to somebody and that person will come looking for it, so we shouldn't touch it. Or take it to a lost and found. Teaching them they can take anything they see is not appropriate behavior.

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    If it is wrong or not to take stuff lying around depends on culture and context. In the context of my child we talk about pieces of nature (sticks, stones...), a lost piece of chalk or sand toy on the playground. In case of the last two, I make it dependent on how long it was lying there and if it makes sense to add that one to our pool - here it is common (though not undisputed) to take lost toys because most children lose some of their own sooner or later; so it's basically an anonymous circular swap.
    – Kjara
    Aug 1 at 8:27
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    I do agree with you from an adult standpoint, though; and I appreciate you pointing out that I should not say it in such a general way.
    – Kjara
    Aug 1 at 8:31

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