How do I let a four year old know when she needs to listen?
March 18, 2013 7:12 AM   Subscribe

I let my four-year-old niece get the best of me in a lot of our play. How can I teach her when she needs to listen?

I am the uncle of a couple of sweet little girls, age 2 and 4, whom I see once or twice a week. The other adults in the family that I married into all speak a language that I don't speak, so when we visit, the other adults generally converse in that language, and I play with the girls. I really love it; it's the highlight of my week.

I'm starting to get a little concerned that a lot of my play with the four year old centers around her getting the best of me in some way. Usually, it's something harmless or imaginary:
- she'll pretend that she's eating my hair and making me bald;
- she tells me that I have three four, five or more eyes;
- she pretends to throw a ball, keeps it, and yells "I tricked you!";
- she sneaks a sticker onto me and then laughs.

That kind of thing.

However, it isn't always harmless. This weekend, we went to a large fair with tens of thousands of people, and she took her shoes off and wouldn't put them back on. Another time, she put a little piece of Styrofoam in her mouth, and when I told her to take it out, she smiled with the same "I'm being naughty" smile that she would give when pretending to eat my hair. I think she swallowed some of it. More seriously, I started to get afraid that she would dart out into the street when we were walking next to traffic- she didn't do it, but she teased me with it. If I hadn't been been holding her hand so tightly, maybe she would have.

I know that she's not the first kid in the world to take her shoes off, or to eat something she shouldn't. But I'm worried that I've let her learn a bad lesson- that it's fun to do the opposite of what Uncle Clambone says. It's harmless enough until it isn't; she doesn't know when I'm being serious, and she doesn't know what's safe and what isn't. Tone of voice doesn't do it.

Any advice?
posted by Clambone to Human Relations (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Everything stops. Uncle Clambone explains that this is not acceptable behaviour, and play will not resume until (i) she listens, and (ii) she acknowledges that the behaviour was out of line - e.g. she says 'sorry'. Repeat this every time she crosses the line you've set. After a while she'll grasp the idea that Uncle Clambone has boundaries, and that Uncle Clambone will be very consistent in enforcing those boundaries, and Uncle Cambone is not someone whose protestations can be ignored.

Kids who know and respect adults' boundaries are not only easier to live with, but tend to be happier for knowing where they stand (in my experience).
posted by pipeski at 7:23 AM on March 18, 2013 [25 favorites]

What pipeski said, and maybe set up a signal so she knows when it's playtime and when it's serioustime ("Kidlet, when Uncle Clambone is shaking his fingers like this, then it's okay to be silly.").

And don't worry -- she'll figure it out. As your play has shown, this is a time of testing boundaries for kids, both social and physical ("How high can I jump?" "Can I cross the living room without touching the floor?").
posted by Etrigan at 7:28 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know you said tone of voice doesn't do it, but do you have a tone of voice that is reserved *only* for super-serious running-in-the-street situations? I have a friend who's a mom and her not-kidding-around-voice (which is reserved for "Kidname, NO!" danger situations) makes me just about jump out of my skin because it is *so* different from her normal way of speaking, including her "Kidname, please don't do that, I'm counting to three and then a timeout" type discipline. That's probably what you need for the styrofoam eating and running in the street.

For times when she's not putting herself in risk of life or limb, but being intractable when it's not playtime, can you talk to her parents about what strategies they're using with her, and what they'd be comfortable with you doing? Consistency is huge for young kids.
posted by heyforfour at 7:29 AM on March 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, this is typical four year-old behavior. My mom used to count, out loud when we were at home, with only her fingers if we were out in public. Basically, by the time she gets to "three" you best be stopping whatever it is that's pissing her off and straighten up.

So, at the fair, as she's doing things you don't like, "One. Two. Three." If you get to Three, then that's it, we're going home.

The tone of voice is stern and uncompromising. You can even say to her, to introduce her to the concept, "You have until I count to three to stop doing X. One. Two. That's better."

If you get to three, you're done.

She still does it, I still get freaked out. I'm 50
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:32 AM on March 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: My secret parenting trip is to get the child to behave safely by thinking they're doing something grown up.

For example, when I have my 18 month old in the stroller and I need to cross a busy street, I tell my four year old I need his help pushing the stroller across the street. Could he please help me? He scoots next to me, puts one hand on the stroller, and I put one of my hands over his.

Also, for crowds, I say, "I need your help finding x. Can you hold my hand and help me find it?" And he does.

As for the shoes, I would have said, "Shoes stay on or we go home." Or, if it was okay to keep the shoes off for some of the time, but not all of the time, I'd have said, "Shoes can stay off now, but when you want to go on the carousel, they have to go back on." Then at the carousel, "You can put your shoes on and go on the carousel, or you can keep the shoes off and we can go for a walk."

It's a question of picking your battles.

I've also done my fair bit of shouting and having stern conversations about why something wasn't safe. But mostly I've found by giving my particular child some responsibility in what I want him to do, he does it far more willingly than if I just tell him to do it.
posted by zizzle at 7:34 AM on March 18, 2013 [15 favorites]

I counted down. A sudden loud THREE. TWO. usually does the trick. Have some plan in mind for when you reach one.

Kneel down to her eye level. Take her face in your hands (lightly). Make constant eye contact. Whisper or talk in a very. Low. Voice.

Last resort, never failed when I did this with my son (and I must have done it only a few times). Stand behind her. Lean over so your face is UPSIDE DOWN as you look mildly cross and speak slowly. Freaks a kid right out because you don't look like yourself anymore. Reserve that one.
posted by argybarg at 7:40 AM on March 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

I will share what I've learnt as the doting fun Aunt to a very strong willed niece and nephew, when she starts to cross the line you need to be willing to just stop dead. That's it, fun happy wrestling being silly time stops. At the fair, if she wouldn't put her shoes on you do the count to three and then go home thing if she doesn't follow through, you don't have to get angry or yell you just calmly say "we are going home/stopping because you did xyz". The first few times you will have to have to follow through with the "punishment" which can be hard if you really want to be at the fair and are used to being the fun uncle but it is really important to stick to your guns. Once the kids realise that you will follow through they will behave, and honestly, everyone including them has a much better time if boundaries are enforced.

Also see if you can get "the voice" this one takes a bit of practice, using it just before you get to the punishment is a great reinforcement too so that they know that there's no where to go from there that they will like the end result of. I have used time outs with a very stubborn nephew too like the Supernanny uses and found them to work well.

Oh and get the parents on side to support you and back you up, I've seen friends where the parents basically ignore the fact that their are rules say when the kids visit and undermine the Aunts attempts to set boundaries for the kids behaviour when visiting and it all ends badly. If the parents are of the school of thought of your out with your uncle his rules apply, or visiting so you obey the rules of the house, it makes things much easier and they can probably offer tips on what sort of thing works best with your niece too.

All this does not mean you don't' still get to be the doting fun Uncle, you are just now the doting fun Uncle with boundaries.
posted by wwax at 7:54 AM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Bribe her. 'Ready for ice cream? Put your shoes on so your toes don't freeze off and then we will get ice cream.'

Develop a signal. Eye contact is important. Ask her, 'where are your eyes, let me see your eyes' and then look her in the eye and tell her she must behave. Do not smile while doing this but do not look angry either. She enjoys your reactions which is why you are so much fun to play with. Deny her any reactions and she will get the picture. Unless she is just an awful child, in which case, bribe her.
posted by myselfasme at 8:00 AM on March 18, 2013

Best answer: Since she's four, you can probably re-iterate to her the concept of safety and tell her that fun and games are great but there are certain situations where fun and games have to pause (maybe a better word than stop, and maybe even a new word for her to learn unless she's already a DVD remote control user) when safety is involved, and you can tell her specific examples of those. You can even have a special pause signal you guys share (let her create it - maybe a DVD remote control hand motion?) and then when it's a safety situation, send her that signal to remind her, and even let her do it (with you reminding her, if necessary, when to use it). Young children obviously find it fun and interesting to create something new (your shared signal) and to have secrets that other people are not in on. I think you'll get a better response with any kind of approach like this that engages her in the process because she'll feel some empowerment and she'll feel that modifying her behavior is fun rather than something she wants to ignore or challenge. Thus, she'll buy into the process. If she doesn't follow the pause rule all the time, then just stop playing with her and stop having a fun and happy expression until she does the desired outcome and thereby she'll learn that if she wants to play with you, she has to follow the rules. Personally I'm less concerned about the other stuff about her getting the best of's her age and her personality, and you can just do that back to her if you want, or if you don't like it, just don't respond to it (she wants to do things that get a response, so she'll start trying other things).
posted by Dansaman at 8:17 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

When laying down ultimatums, remember: Say it. Mean it. Do it.

If, as suggested above, you say "Shoes stay on, or we go home," then you have to MEAN it. If you say that, but don't follow through when they take their shoes off again, they will know (and kids are super fast at learning this stuff) that you don't mean it, and they will see how far they can push you.

So do not give ultimatums that YOU cannot live with. The key, IMHO, to make sure that they know you're serious is to Say it, mean it, and do it.
posted by China Grover at 8:29 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yep. So she's playing with you in a way that lets her test boundaries. She tries to do certain things, and you allow her to do it, and so she has fun because she's learning that she gets to do lots of harmless stuff without boundaries.

The flipside of that is teaching her when she crosses an inappropriate boundary. Period. As others said, the fun stops, the seriousness kicks in, and if she doesn't cease crossing the boundary and apologize, she goes back to one parent...because the single biggest thing you can take away is you as a plaything.

That doesn't mean anger; that doesn't mean ignoring her. It simply means that playtime is over until/unless she respects any boundary you set. That isn't limited to dangerous things like the street, but also includes things like hitting you. "Oop, you need to stop that now" with a serious face, and if she doesn't, "okay, playtime is over until you respect my boundary" and back to her parent she goes...until she apologizes to you. (Note: do not accept a pleading apology made only when you're walking her back to her parent, or she'll just learn she can get out of it by doing that. All the way back to her parent she goes for a five-minute no-you timeout.)
posted by davejay at 10:20 AM on March 18, 2013

Sorry, but please don't bribe a kid, whether it is yours or not. It isn't a useful tool.

Seconding the "pick your battles." At four years old, she should know how to stop when you ask her, but use the techniques above (ask for help, give her options [shoes on the carousel or shoes off and we go to the bounce house], let her feel in charge) to help her discern what is playtime and what isn't.
posted by mrfuga0 at 10:29 AM on March 18, 2013

It might be useful to read a little about status changes (I'm thinking of Keith Johnstone's book 'Impro'). She's treating you like you are lower status than her, which is funny. But you need to be in control of that and not her.

High status people are quite 'still', and don't move their heads or arms fast or jerkily. So to put that into effect, ask her to stop nicely. When she doesn't, then exhale, relax, lay your eyes upon her, ask again (raising status). When that doesn't work say 'I'm going to count to three', and do that. When you get to three, then do something which either removes you or her (i.e. time out, or stopping playing). Never, ever get to three and then don't follow through.

My four year old will start running on two and shout 'no, stop counting' as she does, even though most of the time I don't even know what's going to happen if I do get to three.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:59 PM on March 18, 2013

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