Friday, March 5, 2010

Frustrating Preschooler?

The Question:

Hello Jane,

I just stumbled upon your blog by pure inspiration, truly! I have been reading it for the last 45 minutes and I already feel like I have learned a lot! Thank you! I do have a question though that I still feel unanswered after reading the section about disciplining with love. I am a "newer" mom. My oldest daughter is 3 1/2 and I also have a 1 1/2 year old son. Lately my daughter has been acting much like the woman who posted about her 7 year old (post title "Fostering Obedience"). I like what you answered but I still wonder how can I do unto someone as I would want done myself when they are 3 and don't comprehend what I am trying to teach? Where is the line where I stop cleaning her room for her because time after time, she lets me do it without helping and unless there is a fight, and doesn't seem to learn or appreciate what I am doing?

Here is an example, today she wanted some juice. I clearly told her, you may have 1 cup of juice, and if you are still thirsty you may have water after that. After she drinks her juice, she asks for more juice. She knows I will say no, but asks regardless. I tell her to, and offer her water. To no avail, she started crying. I got down on her level and explained what I told her already and to please make a good choice and just say "ok mommy." Instead, she just repeats "But I just want one more cup of juice! I dont want water!" she cried and cried so hard that she got to the point where she gets beyond any point where I can even reason with her, and I end up having to just send her to her room until she is done crying. Most of the time she just cries herself to sleep, repeating over and over "But I just wanted more juice!"

I believe in being firm and consistent, which is why I don't tolerate this behavior, but I feel like she just isn't learning. I always go in after and tell her I love her and ask if she understands why she was in her room, and we talk about it. I rarely raise my voice, and she still acts out like this. Lots of times, the fight will start all over again, because she won't agree or say she understands and just pleads her case again that she just wanted more juice!, and by the way, this is a new thing, which is why I am so beside myself on what to do. This week has been awful, and she has cried for hours each day over little things that we are usually able to work through together. Usually, she is a good listener and doesn't throw tantrums, etc.

So, back to the golden rule. As a 3 year old, how do I teach her how I would want to be treated when we are at such different levels of life understanding? Where is the line of loving or being a pushover and giving them whatever they want? Whatever I am doing, it does not seem to be working, as every day this week has been crying tantrums, and time outs, toys taken away, all after lovingly giving her chance after chance to make a better choice? Help with a 3 year old mind please!!!


The Answer: Relax and Enjoy

Dear Leslie,

I appreciated your letter. Your daughter sounds like a very strong-willed and determined child. That type of determination can really blossom into greatness later on. I've raised a wide assortment of personality types and I have the wonderful advantage of having seen how the determined three year old turns out. They are a challenge to raise, but they know how to get things done!

Try hard to avoid all-out power struggles. They are destructive to your relationship and no one really wins. The word "avoid" is at the heart of the issue. Some parents almost welcome the power struggle and bring it on as a way of establishing their authority. They view parenting kind of like breaking a horse--"Once they know who's boss, they'll submit." Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. I believe children who are forced to submit, store up anger and often in their teen-age years it comes out in the form of rebellion. On the other hand, you don't tiptoe around your children trying not to rock the boat. You carefully choose the areas where you must put your foot down and then do it clearly. It sounds like you’ve been a very clear and consistent parent. But what happens when, even though a power struggle is the last thing you want, things always seems to escalate that way? I have some thoughts.

As you know, I've raised (and am still raising) a big family. I sometimes think the thing that made it easier, is that I didn't have the luxury of micro-managing my children. Their life was fairly loose. I don't remember even caring how much juice they drank. They were around five before I expected them to clean a whole room. They liked doing jobs because I didn't demand much. Later, as their attention span lengthened and their maturity increased, it was easy to teach them. Most of my interaction with them in the early years was positive and I made relatively few demands. Because there wasn't much to "push back" against, there weren't many tantrums. When there were, it was usually because they were tired or hungry or just "needy" for my attention.

I read once about an Amish community where parents just enjoy their little children and let them play outside and give them few responsibilities until they are school-age. Then they teach them chores and expect them to contribute. I like that. It gives me permission to do what I want to do--enjoy my children. I especially love 3-year-olds. I love to listen to the ingenious way that they put words together. It's so fun to teach them new things. I love how they light up. Just relax and know that her life will be loaded with 75 years of worry and responsibility, and so for the first three or four, you can let her thrive in an environment of love and acceptance. Just lower your expectations a little bit and know that maturity will solve a myriad of problems.

Let me share a personal example that illustrates my philosophy. Several years ago, my then 3-year-old daughter Marielle and I were invited to participate in a play group. We rotated houses. The host mom would provide a snack and the children were allowed to play—largely unbothered by us-- while the moms talked. I loved this play group! Marielle loved it too. No one even talked about rules. We solved the occasional conflict—but, overall, things were pleasant and nurturing (for both or us!) We loved Wednesday mornings. So I was excited a few years later when my little son Peter and I were invited to participate in another play group. This one turned out to be very different. There were craft projects, snack time, learning time and rules aplenty. Soon Peter decided it wasn’t for him. He didn’t misbehave there. But it seemed stressful for all the moms—worrying about their children’s performance and behavior every minute. It was an entirely different experience. No joy for either of us.

Peter’s in second grade and a great student who never struggles with structure. He likes it now.

In a broader sense, this describes my philosophy about early childhood. The focus is not so much on rules and structure as on gentle teaching, nurturing and enjoying. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of preschool—but that topic is for another day.

I can tell that you’re an excellent mom. I give you permission to just be mediocre (just kidding). But just slow down and enjoy her. Your days together are numbered.

All my love,


  1. I love this blog so much. I would like to add something, though, if that's okay. On another question about nutrition, Jane said it is a matter of opinion. So I'd like to give an opinion on the other side. I'm a total nutritionist, by hobby, not trade :) I actually think what you feed your children makes a really big difference, while their bodies are growing, their cells are multiplying, and dividing. So many diseases are going up, up, up percentage wide (autism, food allergies, asthma, MS, ADHD, lupus, diabetes (type 1 and type 2), alzheimers, etc.) I believe, due to things I've read, that a lot of it is due to what we eat - genetics plays a roll in all of them, but the reason for their increase is at least partially diet. I know that some people can eat junk their whole lives through and are fine. But some people can't. And I believe that what you eat prior to and just following puberty plays a big roll in your health for the rest of your life. Might as well give your children the best shot at a healthy body as you can. These things are a big deal to me, because between my husband's and my immediate family, we have almost everything I listed above! If my children are unhealthy, I feel like their lives will be just that much harder.

    SOOO, this is what I do, and I really don't have qualms about food at my house. I teach my son about our bodies, and keeping them healthy. I have taken him to the dentist. I explained that if he eats too much sugar, his teeth can rot, and he'll have to go to the dentist and get a shot. I said, "It hurts a little bit" (I said little bit because if the time comes to get a filling for him, I don't want him to be terrified). But I said if he doesn't eat too much sugar, and we brush his teeth, he might not need to get a filling. He just turned 3. This was a few months ago, and he understands perfectly. I also explain how eating junk can make you feel sick. I point out how he feels when he is sick, so he makes the connection. So he knows that junk rots his teeth and makes him feel sick, and everyone he talks to knows that too, because he tells them :) He's so good about, "Not eating too much." If someone gives him a piece of candy, )and you'll think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not) he usually eats part of it, then gives me the rest (or even throws the rest away), saying he doesn't want to eat too much or he'll get sick and rot his teeth. My family is all jaw-dropped at him and his control over his appetite.

    I rarely deny him a treat. That's why we use the phrase "too much." I don't want him to feel like he's missing out, doesn't get what the other kids have, and grow up resenting it. And I especially want him to take me seriously when I talk about word of wisdom things that really, truly, shouldn't be eaten.

    Now and then I will remind him, while he's eating something, "Remember, not too much." I never have to take it from him, never have to get after him. Hardly ever have to do anything because he really does gage himself. And we honestly, never have a power struggle over it.

    Another thing that really helps is having only healthy things around the house (except for FHE, of course :) If it's sitting in the cupboard, even I have a hard time resisting it. So if people want their kids to stop asking for goldfish, maybe they should pass on the goldfish. But juice, is healthy, on moderation, so you have some at your house. Well, We don't usually have juice. I make a yummy full-fruit juice on our blendtec (no, I'm not affiliated, ha ha - I just like it). I put in 2 full oranges, 2 cups strawberries, and tiny bit of ice and blend it up. That way, they are getting the whole fruit, which is much, much better for them. And it's not that big of a deal if he wants more.

  2. Continued from other post below...

    The biggest problem is when we go places. At church, everyone around us is pulling out the fruit snacks and all sorts of goodies. I just try to bring something that's good, even really good, and nutritious. A favorite is whole wheat pancakes. Every kid loves them - to eat them just cold, out of a bag, no syrup. Or the real fruit leather from Costco, instead of fruit snacks. Really good, but better than fruit snacks.

    Overall, though, yes your relationship is the most important. I just think, just as your child acts up if they are hungry or tired, if they end up with physical problems (think ADHD or wacky blood sugar levels), they won't be all that easy to deal with, either. Everyone has their best shot if they are feeling good.

    I'm guessing your daughter saying, "I just want more juice" really doesn't know WHY she can't have more juice. It seems a simple request to her. It's sitting in your fridge. She can have some, so why not more?" That's why, just from reading your question, I would guess she acts up.

    Sorry that was so long.

  3. Oh, and one more thing, the golden rule and 3 year old. Since reading this blog, I have been trying to do the golden rule thing, too. Three year olds are emotional. I am pretty emotional, too, so I thought about this. When my emotions are high, how do I want people to treat me? I don't want someone to try to tell me how to act, or anything. As an adult I realize my emotions are high, even in the moment, but I can't seem to turn them off immediately upon request. When my emotions are high, I just want someone to love me. So I've been doing that with my son. If he acts up, I scoop him up, squeeze him. And tell him I love him. And I let him cry it out in my arms. Then when he is calmed down, we talk. Sometimes we pass on the talking, because it really was just the emotions, and he's fine. It's only been a few weeks of doing this, and there is a HUGE difference I can tell already. Our days have been so great.

    Thank you Jane for all your advice! I love your blog.

  4. I have been thinking a lot about this issue too. I am reading the book you suggest Jane (you really should write a new easier-to-read version!), and understand the philosophy behind it, but since it is sooooo different from the current parenting mindset about rules, consequences and authority, its kinda scary to go out on a limb and practice it on faith.

    We often are faced with these types of power struggles in our house too. My daughter is 2, and while I want her to know that I am the parent, I also don't want to create meltdown situations over trivial things. You may think that by being firm, you are teaching her that no means no, but its really only creating more anger and frustration in her. When I am in similar situations, instead of caving in and giving her what she wants, or standing my ground and saying no and causing a freak out, I try to offer a few other options or distract her from the original issue. In the juice example, I would sweetly and calmly offer milk (plain chocolate or strawberry), a different type of juice, water with food coloring, anything that comes to mind that you think might work. Or lead her to a different room and start a new (fun!) activity. Diffuse the situation. Distracting my daughter from the problem is a win-win for me. I don't have to give in to her, and she doesn't have to freak out.

    After days of extra love and attention (and no meltdowns)and getting rid of the anger and frustration (in her and you!), you can then effectively teach her the things that she can do to make you happy (cleaning her room, being kind to her brother, respecting you when you say no). It seems so odd, but I know it works. I used to worry about being a pushover too, it just didn't make sense to me to give in to all of her demands. I wanted to be "in control," but I was getting no where. My daughter was demanding everything under the sun, just to pick a fight. It was tantrum city!

    Fostering obedience through love is totally different than being "in control." Its not "giving in" although it might feel like it at first, if your daughter continues to "test" you with things like the juice demands. Once you are practicing the love approach and the anger is gone, you can say no, and since there isn't a buildup of anger or power issues, it doesn't create a meltdown. They accept it and move on. Seriously. They trust and respect you. They are motivated by your love for them, and their love for you. It works!

    I can't thank Jane and Natalie enough for helping me be a better mom, and bringing peace and happiness to our home!!!

  5. Kylie,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write about your experiences with this. You put it so well and I agree with everything you said. Sometimes, because I've been raised thinking this way, I have a hard time putting my finger on why it works, or even what it is I'm doing exactly. After time it has become second nature, though of course I have my bad days. I really appreciated how well you articulated your thoughts on this subject. They add more clarity to the concept and are very practical.

  6. Two phrases that I love the most in your answer:
    "maturity will solve a myriad of problems."
    "But just slow down and enjoy her. Your days together are numbered."

    Amen to that!

  7. Thank you so much for that answer Jane! I get so discouraged by the overly formulated methods of parenting that are so popular today.
    Too many mothers have stopped believing that they have divine instincts when it comes to raising their children, and so every new theory or regiment becomes gospel.
    I just love that you have created a place to publish the idea that children are just fine being children, and that being a great Mom is as wonderfully simple as letting love shine in your eyes!
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. I totally remember the day I decided to enjoy my son. The days seem shorter because we are both happier! I really agree with the concept to give them a chance to grow into where you want them to go. I love that connection that I have with my children as I learn how to communicate and teach with the spirit! Awesome stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  9. I agree. I've totally been there - even over juice! I finally realized - how important are these little issues to me? Is it worth all the frustration just to lay down the law? And is my point even made or did I just make my daughter feel upset and sad over juice (or whatever). So I started to say "I'll think about it" more often. This gives me time to think - do I really care about what she's asking me right now? I think she feels listened to as well. If I say no, I often try to explain simply why I said no and then change the subject (as mentioned above). It helps. AND then no is no. There isn't any, "Oh but p-l-e-a-s-e! - if I pester you long enough with what I want you will eventually cave" - which drives me CrAzY from older kids. I feel reassured from Jane about this whole subject. It is so easy to wonder if we are spoiling our kids or being push-overs, you know? I want there to be rules and structure but I don't want to be a military base either!! Hard balance. Thanks Jane :)

  10. I have been having similar issues with my 3 year old son and could have written this post - so thank you Leslie for putting it out there! My son is also "strong willed and determined" as Jane puts it, and I too have wondered how to eliminate the power struggles without feeling like I'm letting him order me around. Jane, thank you again for your wonderful thoughts! It is comforting to hear from someone who has RAISED children of different temperaments and can now see them on the adult end and reassure us newer moms that things WILL be ok if we just loosen up and love them! Thank you so much!

  11. Hi Jane, it's Leslie. Thank you for your response so very much. This week has been great with my little girl. I'v taken a different approach to things, with your advice on mind, and it's been great. My key ingredient, let the little things go and don't forget to love more then anything else. Your answer was so simple, yet so powerful. Thank you thank you.


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