How can a parent best motivate a 4-year-old who isn't a "pleaser"?
September 21, 2012 4:08 PM   Subscribe

How can a parent best motivate a 4-year-old who isn't a "pleaser"?

I'm not a big fan of extrinsic motivators such as yelling and threats of punishment, or rewards with treats and activities. And in fact, with my four year-old daughter those things aren't very effective anyway.

I've seen some other kids who appear to be more "pliant", and I've come to the conclusion that "propensity to want to please" is probably a big component of what I've observed in those who generally quickly do everything they are told to do without having been conditioned to be compliant through forceful means such as spanking.

So what I'm trying to understand better is what intrinsic incentives can motivate a young child who is not the type who has a high natural inclination to please other people, including her parents.

A few things that I have found work well are appeals to her intellectual side, such as saying "You are not being a good listener" or "You hurt my feelings when you don't listen to me". And sometimes I add a challenge element to those things, for example "Do you think you can be a better listener?" or "Do you think you can avoid hurting my feelings?". She seems to respond fairly well to such intellectual appeals and challenges, but I feel my repetoire is a little thin and I'm looking for more such ideas about how to motivate a child who is not a big people pleaser.

Of course I do speak firmly to her and raise my voice when needed, but I'd like to minimize the necessity of doing that because frankly an environment with extra stress and the appearance of anger is not the type which I want for our family, nor is it in its most extreme forms the way I want to teach my daughter to get things done.

As a side note, friends have confirmed my own thinking that not being an excessive pleaser will be a good thing once she gets older and needs to fend off negative peer pressure, unwanted suitors, and manipulative people, but that future benefit comes at the cost of things being at little more challenging in parenting her at this younger stage of her life.

Thank you.
posted by Dansaman to Human Relations (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Races. When my daughter was 4, the only way I could get her to do anything was to race her to do it. "Race you to the bathroom!" "I bet I can get my shoes on before you can!" "I bet you can't drink that milk before I can count to ten!"

When she does something good, brag about it to someone else. I used to call my mom and tell her "OMG Lily just cleared her plate all by herself without being yelled at!" or whatever tiny thing it was. She was much more motivated by hearing the pride in my voice describing her actions to others than she was with me telling her I was proud of her.

Last but not least? Outright bribery. I know you're not fond of it, I wasn't either, but I also wasn't fond of screaming myself hoarse at an increasingly disinterested preschooler.
posted by KathrynT at 4:22 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Those sound like complicated words for a 4yo. My kids' counsellor has explained that, even very bright kids, can't do the whole cause and effect thing and empathy is still in development. She also told me that, to have kids please you, you need to say 10 positive things for every 1 negative thing or it will feel like constant negative.

As for rewards, I don't bribe, but I do say things like, "Once you've ______, we will have ice cream/stickers/Wii/TV/board game/library/book/etc". Sticker charts also worked sometimes for brief times - just long enough to create a routine around ONE behaviour.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:24 PM on September 21, 2012

You should look into the Love & Logic approach to parenting. They advocate that instead of telling a child what to do, you give them a choice that will make them think. This also gives them more control and they can see that they are doing what is necessary and logical - not just because you say so.
I'm new to it but I think It might sound like this -
"I'm leaving in five minutes. Are you going to put your shoes on first or get your coat first?"
"I'm putting my shoes on now. What do you think that means for you?"
"I'm leaving now. I see you decided not to put your shoes on so I will carry them for you."
" I hate walking on the hot sidewalk too. Maybe if you run to the car, your feet won't hurt so much." (Do not say - "See what happens when you don't wear shoes" she is finding out for herself and you don't want to turn her attention away from the experience toward a power struggle with you.)
posted by metahawk at 4:24 PM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

All great suggestions so far, thanks! And indeed I do a lot of the "do you want to choose this or that?" approach (and I'm pretty good at it due to my experience doing sales as part of my business). I do believe in my daughter having control of what happens, and by giving her specific choices (in some but not all cases - "what do you want to wear" is an open ended choice), the benefits are 1) she is not overwhelmed, and 2) I get a result that I can accept.
posted by Dansaman at 4:30 PM on September 21, 2012

*heh* Well, I can say "Ditto" to you with my four-year-old daughter. She couldn't give a crap about pleasing me or my wife, whereas my wife's son who is turning five next month is all about the pleasing his parents.

In all honesty, I have not come up much to make her want to please us. I have discovered a few things along the way, though.

(1) She herself doesn't like too much praise. She says as much. "When I do X, do say 'yay'." she has said straight as you can imagine, where X is something hard or challenging and she knows she's on the precipice of doing it. So, we've scaled back a lot of our praise to be quiet and low-voiced.

(2) I took a business communications course and as odd as it sounds, it helped me a lot with communicating with her. I do IT support for a living, and one of the key elements in the communications course, something I already knew but really didn't "see" until the course that I wasn't working on with my own kid was removing barriers. So, the "You hurt..." or "You are not..." puts up a barrier or responsibility on her that she probably doesn't fully understand. (I've even started saying "Does that make sense?" instead of "Do you understand?" in order to remove the unspoken barrier of accusation that the "Do you understand?" phrase carries with it). I now try to frame most of my communication with her the same way I do when working with a very difficult VIP customer. What can I do to help? What can we do together to be part of a team to achieve or accomplish something? How can we work together? It sounds silly, but the weekend I set out to do that the first time, the next Monday morning for the first time ever she said to her mom "I don't want dad to go. YOU go to work and dad can stay here. " It was a real revelation about how important (and fast) changing communications styles with my kid could be.

(3)The "teamwork" approach is a good one for my family. It doesn't always work, but it does make my daughter feel less like everything is on her to accomplish and it puts it in her mind that we'll help her even if we won't do the thing for her.

(4)In our case, our daughter has sensory integration dysfunction and her senses and brain don't coordinate themselves properly and I know good and well this leads to her acting and reacting in ways that are just reactions to her brain and sense in a particular environment. (We were in an arcade that was almost entirely empty, her first time in one, but the combination of sounds and lights made her so sick she thought she was going to throw up - we spent all the time there with her bent over like she was going to throw up). Sometimes these reactions come across as her being mean or thoughtless, but we work through it with a lot of simple language about how "I understand this place might be making you feel strange. Let's take a walk outside and see if you feel better." etc. Not saying your daughter has this issue, mind you, but be aware that her perspective and view is that of a four year old and some things you say may not mean remotely the same thing to her.

Minimizing the stress with the raised voice or stern voice can go hand in hand with also changing the communication style and trying to remove or not create any barriers between what you are trying to say to her and her own mind in understanding it. She's four, after all, and while it's good to learn responsibility remember that she's four and that she might take things either a lot more personally, more emotionally, more literal, or spend a lot more time thinking about them than you will as an adult. Even her brain is physiologically different and her perception of the world is probably one that most of us can't recall too easily, so it never hurts for us as parents to put in the effort to carry the burden not only of being their caretaker and providers but carrying the burden of communication and language we use with them.

And you and your friends are right. My wife put it this way "Everything that's maddening about her is a child are the very things that will make her a successful adult."
posted by smallerdemon at 4:40 PM on September 21, 2012 [25 favorites]

Ugh, typo: "my wife's son" should be "my wife's sister's son".
posted by smallerdemon at 4:40 PM on September 21, 2012

I don't have children. But I do work with kids. With autism. So a bulk of my days are spent dealing with all sorts of behavior problems. I don't have specific examples but similar to what KathrynT mentioned- reinforce good behavior like crazy. Some kids thrive on attention, maybe not yours. But there is surely something that would motivate her. Playing games on mom or dad's phone? Movies/ tv time? Certain toys? I don't completely love it but yummy treats are big reinforces with us. What you might think is a reward might not be something she responds to. You might think ice cream is a great reward but she could care less so why would she be quiet in the grocery store for it?
For behavior you don't like and isn't destructive or harmful, just ignore it. Completely. Don't even look at her. Walk out of the room. Keep walking down the aisle at the store or whatever. If she's acting like a turd because she wants to get out of what you want her to do, don't back down on your demand. If you want her to pick up her toys, she MUST pick them up before doing anything. Be firm. Don't look back. And my favorite, no yelling. Always keep a calm disposition.
I don't actually know how much of this is practical in a real world environment versus my job so ymmv. Let me know if I can clarify anything.
posted by missriss89 at 4:48 PM on September 21, 2012

My former babysitter had 4 girls, plus my son, and at times another little girl. She was the best sitter I ever had! She could take all those kids into a big store and they'd be so well behaved. She used the 1-2-3 Magic method and like anything with kids that age, it takes consistency and repetition.

Kids do not think like adults. So reasoning with them like adults ultimately does not work. Because you are teaching them. So it has to be routine, clearly spelled out, with clear consequences. Also, you have to be sensitive to the evening meltdown time. Just before supper, sometimes during supper, everyone is tired and cranky and kids get especially whiny and resistant to discipline and reasoning, because, hey, they're kids! I tried to avoid this with a little snack before supper, some Rugrats or favorite show, and then bath, singing songs, and story time. Every night like clockwork.

Another thing is to focus on the behavior. "Use inside voices, please." And kids also respond to humor much better than strict discipline. Such as "no more Monkeys, jumpin' on the bed," to quote the familiar book, or an exaggerated, "what are you doing? Do I have to tickle you?" They're also pretty smart: whatever you focus on, they will do more of, because it will get your attention. That's why they act up: they will very quickly get your attention, which is probably the ultimate motivation. So if you give them structured positive attention time every day, it can cut out some of the behavior issues. And by this I mean getting down on the floor with them and singing Raffi songs or whatever else it is they like doing.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:34 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Related to what smallerdemon wrote above in point 2, concerning the similarities of communicating with a child and with business clients, I (guardedly) recommend How to Win Friends and Influence Others by Dale Carnegie.

I should begin by noting that I do not have children of my own -- go ahead and determine how large a grain of salt to take with this -- but I do work with the developmentally disabled, a population that represents a broad spectrum of emotional ages and which nakedly displays the fundamental (and sometimes more nuanced) facets of human behavior on a regular basis. I find it quite educational, though frequently repetitive.

Anyhow, I recently read How to Win Friends following a recommendation by a neighbor and enjoyed it far more than I thought I might. Much of what Carnegie presents is tantamount to common sense in regards to how to manipulate a person in a benign manner, but to see the techniques together highlights the common themes and refreshes one’s understanding. Most everyone is susceptible to a gentle ego massage and it seldom requires much effort to administer one.

I certainly don’t know whether employing some of the methods covered by Carnegie would be effective with your daughter, but it strikes me as a reasonable proposition.
posted by mr. digits at 6:10 PM on September 21, 2012

When she does something good, brag about it to someone else. I used to call my mom and tell her "OMG Lily just cleared her plate all by herself without being yelled at!" or whatever tiny thing it was. She was much more motivated by hearing the pride in my voice describing her actions to others than she was with me telling her I was proud of her.

I can't speak for anyone else's kid, but I absolutely hated it when my parents did this. Hated it! "Mom, why are you telling the neighbor about my misbehavior?" Fake praise, too. Even in my little preschool mind, I knew it was silly to be praised for doing something I already knew how to do and was supposed to do. I was clearly being bullshitted.

There is no magic bullet.
posted by gjc at 6:11 PM on September 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm really going to sail one out here, but I was just watching a program on Youtube entitled Creative Person: Fred Rogers that is dated to 1967, and in it Mr. Rogers comments on the importance of relating childhood experience to adult experience when influencing a child to better tendencies, or something like that.

Frankly, I don't have a very good handle on the concept involved, but at the very least I don't think that watching a half-hour documentary on this person who I, at least, consider a hero could hurt anyone.
posted by mr. digits at 6:45 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

oooo - welcome to my world!!!

And be prepared to have frequent conversations with teachers in the future, since this kind of kid may not respond well to traditional classroom discipline/rules. Particularly if we're any sort of example. Ahem.

What works best with my guy is being super clear and focusing on expectations and consequences. Consequences can be great (room clean? yay! screen time!) or not so great (room not clean? too bad. no screen time.) Creating situations where he can earn more positive consequences than negative gives him a feeling of accomplishment and control, and often boosts his behavior in areas where he isn't as motivated. For example, the daily "chore chart" has a variety of tasks he needs to do, a couple of them harder than others. By making consequences clear and unemotional, you short circuit the parental meltdown shouting part to a large extent. Consistency is key -- we don't budge on the consequences, which also cuts down on his arguing/negotiating and encourages him to get to work.

Figuring out rewards is tough but still important -- it has to be really, really, really compelling for him to tackle something he's not interested in on his own. But rewarding the positive is essential. Bribery? Not really... more like validation for trying something new, doing something hard, etc.

Transitions are tough for my little man. Giving five minute warnings helps. Reminders of future opportunities for fun helps when asked to stop a really great activity. Discussion of longer-term consequences helps. Pointing out when something goes well helps (ie: you got dressed so fast! Wow! I am really proud of you!).

And it's perfectly OK in my book to explain a lot and sometimes negotiate. These kids are thinking about things, and they need to understand WHY. My guy is both logical and literal, and his conclusions formed from incomplete information are sometimes fascinating (and sometimes frustrating).

He will be a fantastic young adult, and I look forward to seeing what he decides to take on as a cause, because whatever that topic/sport/interest is he will RULE.
posted by hms71 at 6:47 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

My son is not a pleaser; right now he's doing well at school behavior wise because he thinks it's cool and he likes his teacher, but I can foresee a day when that won't hold and we'll have a different challenge.

Bribes work, but only sometimes. Punishment works, but it has to be something that matters to him: "Brush your teeth or no bedtime story," and if he's really bad, there's the threat of having a favorite toy taken away (he's not yet pushed us to it, but we've had to remind him of it a few times). We don't spank, I guess that needs to be said.

But we figured all this out by getting into his headspace and figuring out what mattered to him. Getting stories read matters. Getting to sleep on the couch on weekends (for some reason) matters. Not losing a toy matters. Food treats not so much. Stickers not at all. Time outs hardly at all.

It was trial and error. You will need to do the same with your girl. There will be some things that motivate her, or that she is determined to avoid, you just have to figure out what those are and use them judiciously and consistently.
posted by emjaybee at 7:54 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a manipulative trick, but I have seen much parental traction gained with stubborn kids using the phrase, "Oh well, I guess you just aren't old enough to [eat that vegetable/go to bed on time/behave as expected] yet. Maybe when you are [one year older]."
posted by juliplease at 8:38 PM on September 21, 2012

I can't speak for anyone else's kid, but I absolutely hated it when my parents did this.

Proof that all kids are different. Mine eats it up with a spoon.
posted by KathrynT at 8:59 PM on September 21, 2012

You know your child best, so please filter these anecdotal observations through your own experience. I hope they'll be helpful, but they're about my particular kid. That said...

I have a 4-y.-o. daughter who is interested in *relationship* without having any interest at all in being compliant, responsive or a pleaser. It's very clearly not on her agenda. And yes, she has one.

My parenting toolkit, like yours, does not include spanking, yelling (I mean, not standardly, though I do get cranky sometimes), or withholding. I've voluntarily given up those tools and I feel somewhat less armed than other parents because of that decision. I do explain *everything,* and she knows she's free to ask "why" (until the point where it becomes a ridiculous game where she's actively trying to get my goat, whereupon I do my best frustrated Grover impression: "DUDE, shoes on because of BEES! Bees with stingers!" ARGHGHH!"). She's a cool customer, and I have learned to conserve both sympathy and excitement when something happens to her. When she bonks herself on the wooden swing, she gets a cuddle and the calm reassurance that the ouchie will go away in a minute, rather than "OOOOOH, poor YOU!," which tends to send her into deeper tantrums; when she does well, I say "You were so good about staying in the cart at the store and I appreciate that." It takes the focus off of her, and puts the noticing where the action is.

She is very, very driven by her own will. I have found that when she doesn't want to comply with a Very Reasonable and Time-Sensitive request, the best thing to do is to appeal to losing something immediate, as in "If you don't put your shoes on, we can't go see your friend." Logic, logic, logic. Some of it may go over her head, but some of it may get through, but it's better for me to make my case than to scream. When I don't have that immediate leverage, it's really tough. That's when I start pointing out how her skills need work. "If you can't look after your stuffed animals and put them away, then they need to live in the attic for a while. What can you do, right now, to take care of them?" (See also: "Be gentle with the kitten, and ARGHHH, please put your hand under his body when you carry him, support the poor guy!") I try to let her suggest what she can do, and supplement with my ideas. [To be fair, she does have "I can do it" streaks where she wants to be helpful, and praising the value of the help and her skilled-ness pleases her. Not "Good girl!" but "Wow, you cooked those cheesy eggs so well. They're delicious!"]

It can be very, very frustrating, and sometimes nothing moves her. I still haven't convinced her of the value of brushing her hair, and that can get tense. But I keep telling myself -- as you tell yourself -- that these traits will serve her well one day. It's a tough row to hoe to find ways to work within this framework, and I commend you for trying. Good luck to the both of you!
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:09 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

First, kudos for being anti-punishment, pro intrinsic incentive and appealling to her intellect. That's a great start. But, I am not really seeing any intrinsic incentive in the quoted examples you gave. Based on your remarks, I am going to assume you have a handle on things like structuring rules so they work reasonably well but what you really don't know how to deal with is the social piece. In other words, I am going to assume you do okay with things like "Why should I brush my teeth?" but you are frustrated with "Why should I care about listening skills or about someone else having hurt feelings?"

Three words: Enlightened self interest.

So instead of talking about having hurt feelings and that she needs to fix that, take your interest out of it. Put it in a more first person perspective. Think to yourself: "I am four years old and I have important things to do like chase butterflies and play with barbie dolls and dismantle the toaster. And here is this person bothering me. Why should I care about their hurt feelings? What's in it for me?"

Then talk generally about how that cuts both ways. She didn't care what you wanted but at some point she will want something from you. And that's when it will turn into a bad thing for her that she didn't care. Don't tell her she is bad or needs to behave. Explain, logically, how social contracts work. And when she insists on doing some things anyway, the best response is "I will be happy to brainstorm other options with you if you do not like how people react to that. But don't come whining to me about people being mean to you."
posted by Michele in California at 11:49 AM on September 22, 2012

Michele in California - My mother-in-law gave us a book called It's Useful To Have a Duck / It's Useful To Have A Boy that is a fold out book that uses the same pictures in different color schemes to tell the same story from the duck's perspective and the boy's perspective. It's supposed to be useful for being an illustrated example of showing that the same things can be viewed from different perspectives.

Of course, keep in mind that four year old logic may not be the same as adult logic. :) As a philosophy student I love the idea of using logic, but like it or not, there will be times when all you can do to curb a tantrum or put an end to a session of whining is to be a dictator and lay down that there is a line that if crossed results in whatever appropriate consequences you deem fit (within reasons, of course - we do "time out" at our house and never, ever use corporal punishment as we think it's useless for a wide variety of personal and philosophical reasons). Sometimes it's a time out, other times it might be not going somewhere, etc. Never anything harsh, though. I don't generally think children learn very much (i.e. anything at all) from harsh punishments except fear and panic or worse (anger and disdain).
posted by smallerdemon at 3:25 PM on September 25, 2012

« Older How to Send Money Quickly   |   Don't have money for repairs to pass inspection... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.