My 3 year old son is really bright, has an amazingly long attention span, and can be loads of fun but lately he is fighting absolutely everything. It takes ages to get him dressed as he won't do it himself, but he will throw a tantrum if you do it for him. He was doing really well with potty training, having gone 6 days without a single accident, but now he's having several accidents every day. He ignores me and my wife like we're not there and we can talk at him all day to where you think he's not listening, but if we then say "well I guess you don't want x" after all suddenly he's rushing to cooperate.

I am doing my best to be patient and my strategy has been to let him do things himself as he has the skills and is motivated to do so. He can dress himself completely, and has no problem using the potty at all, he's very independent. He's using this independence to decide he's not going to do these things, but there are times that I simply cannot wait to let him do it on his own. Take dressing, I start the process 30 minutes before I have to be out the door, yet frequently I'm late because he simply refuses. I know it is for attention, I just don't know how to deal with it constructively - I have to get to work!

As for the potty training we started in May, and he just started anticipating in October. It was great, he was going to the potty on his own, we were doing things we couldn't do when he was in diapers, but then in the past week or two he's stopped all that and is now willfully going in his pants all the time. We've tried just ignoring him and telling him to change his clothes, we've tried all the strategies, but we've had to go back to reminding him every half an hour to go or he's wetting or messing himself at least 4-5 times per day.

I'm concerned that my wife and I are developing an adversarial relationship with him, and I don't know how to stop it. It's like an arms race, both sides keep upping the ante and the confrontations just get worse. Yet if we don't push him somehow we never get out of the house! Rewards don't seem to work, and I don't want to punish him as punishment seems like an empty strategy which is more about retribution than learning the right things. I can threaten to take his favorite toy away if he gets really bad, but that's not the type of father I want to be! I want to be a calm, measured dad who talks soft and is listened to, but I'm more and more often having to shout at him to get him to cooperate. It's getting to the point where I don't enjoy being with him.

Any suggestions on how to break this cycle? I want him to have a sense of independence, and I think his self confidence is great, but it has to be tempered with an understanding that there are some times when you have to do things even when you don't want to. I need his cooperation in getting dressed, and I need him to start using the potty instead of peeing himself all the time. And I want to do it in a way where I'm not having to come down on him all the time!

Suggestions welcome!

  • Based on your answers around the site, I think Positive Discipline would sit well with you. It's really grounded in connecting with the child to inspire cooperation, rather than using control to force obedience. It seeks to address the underlying belief behind the behavior and not just the behavior 'symptoms'. Oh and yes, this is all done without rewards or punishments. There are several PD books written specifically for parents of young children. Best of luck. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 4:13

2 Answers 2


I think balanced mama's response is great. I was just going to add that we go through similar situations with my son on a somewhat regular basis. My son is 4 and sometimes he'll hop out of bed and be super cooperative and sometimes I have to practically drag him out of bed and dress him myself.

At around age 3ish kids hit this "power" stage where they just really want to have some control over things. This kind of makes sense--I mean, if you had people who were basically making every decision for you wouldn't you kind of want to gain some control? So it sounds like your son has hit that stage and is exercising control over things he legitimately has some control over--going to the bathroom, getting dressed, etc.

Some of the things that we've tried that have had some positive results:

  1. Letting our son pick out his clothes. We don't let him wear shorts in 40 degree weather, but I'll just say "Why don't you pick out a shirt from here and some pants from here and go ahead and get dressed?". Then just walk away and leave it up to him. Go dress yourself, brush your teeth, whatever. Check back in 5 minutes and see if he's completed that task but just say something like, "So what have you decided to wear today?" not "Are you dressed yet?" I realize you're not arguing with your son about what he's wearing, but giving him some limited choices might spur him on.
  2. If our son still chooses to not get himself dressed after that, then I'll tell him he can either dress himself or I will dress him. This more or less illustrates to him that we always have choices in life--sometimes the choices suck, but we always have choices. He can either choose to dress himself or he can choose for me to dress him. 99% of the time, he'll dress himself. But if it's a 1% day you HAVE to follow through. He won't like it, he'll pitch a fit, and it will probably make for a really crappy day because then he'll be in a bad mood, but next time he's given the choice hopefully he'll make the better one.
  3. Don't ride him about it. As long as he's making progress in getting dressed, I try not to ride my son about it unless we're running really, really behind. Sometimes I will have to remind him what he's supposed to be doing--especially if he's gotten distracted by something (a toy, a book, a puzzle), but usually just saying "What are you supposed to be doing?" is enough to help him refocus.
  4. Sometimes if he's having a really hard time getting out of bed, I'll sit on his bed and say, "Can I have a hug?" and we'll hug and snuggle for a couple of minutes just until he's awake enough to get up and moving plus he gets a couple of extra minutes with mom before we have to start our day. This will sometimes get everyone off on the right foot and, thus, make him more cooperative.

ETA: Just wanted to add, sometimes we have luck by turning it into a game. "I bet I can get dressed faster than you!" and, of course, you let him win. My husband is better at this kind of thing than I am. Beating daddy at anything is always a lot of fun.

Overall, I have found that my son's mood directly relates to how cooperative or uncooperative he is.

As for potty training, I suspect this is 100% about control. He has control over his bowel movements and his bladder, he's just choosing to not use the potty. I have no suggestions as to how to correct this, but if he feels like he has power over other things then it might correct the potty issue on its own.

  • GREAT comment! an extra special here here for "if he feels like he has power over other things then it might correct the potty issue on its own." Chances are you are absolutely right! Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 17:55
  • +1 for giving choices, we use more or less the same approach (usually this is choosing from some weather-appropriate pile of cloth). Sometimes we do have issues with putting on a coat, gloves or the like, but after a few moments in the cold our son usually appreciates warm cloth and is asking for them by himself - tantrum avoided. (I would not recommend this for children who get a cold easily, though.)
    – mthomas
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 20:29

There are a number of answers on this site about both the oppositional behaviors and potty training. For all of these questions, the checked question may not be the best answer for you, it was simply the best answer for the person who asked the question. I recommend reading - or at least skimming - all the answers offered.

For Potty Training I suggest: How to deal with potty trained 3 year old who now won't go to the potty? and Retrain toddler to potty? these two questions are MOST relevant as they are about children that were potty trained and have decided to begin refusing to go. However, there are 26 questions with the tag "potty training on them" so there may be additional useful information in these.

For the related defiance, I recommend:

How to deal with a child in an "I can't" phase? - while this question is about a child going through an "I can't" phase. It is still about a child not doing as he or she is asked and delivers a variety of ways to approach the problem.

How can we discipline a strong-willed, misbehaving 5 year-old? While this question is about a five year old, you still may find some great and useful advice that also applies to your general situation. In particular, this answer and my own answer will not be too harsh for your child but may help to break the adversarial cycle you are hoping to break.

Is punishment necessary? asks if punishments are necessary at all. There are some fairly strong, but opposing opinions listed here and again, you may find just the piece of information you need.

What are some suggestions for punishing a child? Is a much more general question and, I believe, will also offer up some relevant and helpful advice.

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