My 3 1/2 year old is trying to put me in an early grave.
April 20, 2008 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Help me deal with my defiant and difficult almost-4-year old.

I know that defiant and difficult behavior is standard for the 3 1/2 year old set, but honestly it's wearing me (and my husband) down. DS turns 4 in July, and the last 6 to 9 months have been quite challenging. Insanely picky eating, refusal to cooperate in normal everyday stuff like brushing teeth and getting dressed, the torturous routine of going to nursery school two mornings a week - anything and everything is a battle. There's lots of random asserting of independence (coupled with random helplessness - "I can't do it, do it for me!").

On top of this, DD is one year old, and although DS clearly adores her, he's also a) jealous of her and b) completely opposed to sharing with her. 100% normal sibling rivalry.

MeFites, please share your best methods for coping with and managing the run-of-the-mill mayhem associated with raising a preschooler!
posted by missuswayne to Human Relations (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You should describe what techniques you have tried with him, so people don't tell you to try things you've already tried or they can offer alternate takes. For instance, who do you respond to the "Insanely picky eating"? Attempt to make him eat? Fix what he wants?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:50 AM on April 20, 2008

Be consistent and mean what you say. Don't threaten a punishment if you can't follow through - and make the punishment consistent with the "crime". Follow through and don't let the guilt get you. (that last bit is the hardest part, but worth it.)

Plus, help your child to see the consequences of their behaviors and choices, so they will learn to make good choices on their own.

Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 8:09 AM on April 20, 2008

Sounds like boundary testing. Prepare for another 20 years of it!

But seriously, try to determine if there's a pattern to his behavior. When teeth brushing time comes, what's he doing?

I'm of two minds on the eating thing. On one hand, he should eat what is served, or not eat. On the other, we all have things we don't like to eat, why can't he? You have to find a way to figure out if his picky eating is defiance related or palate related.
posted by gjc at 8:11 AM on April 20, 2008

My son was a difficult four-year-old as well. The good news is he's now a delightful, only occasionally difficult seven-year-old. First point being, this too shall pass.

Four is that interesting combination of independence and helplessness that you describe above. They're finally verbal enough to say "I want this" or "I don't like this." The challenge is both encouraging and containing the independence.

We fall more on the side of maintaining harmony in our house rather than maintaining hierarchy, so you can take all this with a grain of salt if you're more of the disciplinarian sort, but here goes:

Our main approach with our son was to pick our battles: You don't want to eat that? OK, what do you want to eat? No, you can't have that, but you can have this or this. You want to sleep on the floor in the living room instead of bed? As long as you're sleeping, makes no difference to me. Giving lots of choices you can live with, but ultimately letting the child be the one who decides, really is empowering for him.

Also, I think it's important not to take everything personally. He's not defying YOU if he says he doesn't want to go to bed or doesn't want to brush his teeth. He really doesn't want to do those things at that moment.

We also learned that our son just didn't do well when the conflict escalated to a certain point - he would shut down or become inconsolable. In those cases, we learned to stop talking altogther or walk away, to give him (and all of us, really) time to calm down. I think it's important to not get in a win-or-lose mindset when dealing with little kids.

When our daughter was that age, a big thing for her was to not feel rushed. I can wake up our son ten minutes before the bus comes and he's fine, but his sister has always needed an hour, at least, to wake up and get ready for school in a calm manner. I would count down our departure time for her, beginning way ahead of time. I wonder if your son feels rushed on nursery school days and can't express it?

Lots of other thoughts here, but taking up too much screen already. Good luck!
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:20 AM on April 20, 2008 [8 favorites]

As far as the eating goes, at this point I pretty much make him a plate of pasta and some grape tomatoes or carrot sticks and that's dinner, regardless of what I've made for the rest of the family. We eat in relative peace, at least when it comes to what he's having for dinner. I got tired of trying to get him to eat what I made for the rest of us, it just didn't seem worth it. When he was a toddler he had a good appetite and would eat lots of different foods, I assume he'll go back to that at some point. Still, it's frustrating and even within his bland diet of the moment, he finds ways to be difficult: "No, I don't want rotini, I want penne!" This is followed by a screaming fit because I refuse to make a new bowl of pasta. Nice.

As far as techniques for controlling the chaos - I try to make sure he gets enough sleep, because that seems like a trigger for bad behavior. He still naps in the afternoon most days. But even when he's rested, he's seriously into the button-pushing and yes, gjc, boundary testing. I think often it's a ploy to get attention diverted from his sister, so I do try to give him adequate attention, but it seems like it's never enough. I am also aware that consistency is key and I make an effort to follow through when I threaten punishment. Still, there are times when he wins the battle, because otherwise he's spend the day in time-out or in his room.

We don't spank. I try not to yell much - I like to save my harshest words and serious punishment for things that warrant it, such as hitting his sister in the head, running into the street, and other potentially dangerous situations.

A pattern to the behavior... well, if he's tired, it pretty much guarantees chaos. If I ask him to do something that requires him to switch gears too quickly, that's another recipe for meltdown, so I give him plenty of warning (eg, "We're leaving for school in 10 minutes, so you only have a few minutes left for trains.").
posted by missuswayne at 8:32 AM on April 20, 2008

Sweetie Darling - what you describe is how I try to run my house. It's still tough though. DH has a harder time not viewing things as win/lose situations, and makes a bigger deal out of stuff than I do, although we both feel similar levels of frustration.

I'm a big proponent of the "choose your battles" philosophy. Feel free to elaborate on anything you'd like - screen space is limitless!
posted by missuswayne at 8:36 AM on April 20, 2008

Do you think he might be ready for full-time (or five-day halfday) preschool in the fall? I've always worked so our schedule was pretty consistent, but I've observed that my SAH friends who had kids in more flexible arrangements sometimes had a hard time on school days because the routine and the overall vibe/morning intensity level was so different than at-home days. Big-boy school might also give him something that he can't/doesn't have to share with his sister, plus it's a great outlet for energy.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:53 AM on April 20, 2008

I have a four-year old, and he's a bit defiant but overall obedient when the situation really calls for it. What's helped best is lots of positive reinforcement when he really is doing good, and never making idle threats. Bonding time and frequent fun activities also helps a lot... without that, I think the kid just sees the parent as an authoritarian and will push buttons to destabilize the balance and get some control.
posted by mr. creosote at 9:00 AM on April 20, 2008

My son will be 4 this summer, my daugther is almost 2-1/2 so I feel your pain. we also subscribe to the "pick-your-battles" mind set, but at the same time we try to make it clear that we are in charge, not them.

We will let a lot of minor things slide. We never get upset by little things like spills, unless they spill something we told them not to touch in the last few minutes.

when either of them really start to defy us, we usually remind them that they are doing something they are not supposed to do, and they will be sent into corner if they continue. It is not uncommon for our kids to end up standing in the corner, but it is usually accomplished without us having to even raise our voices, and they are really understanding that there are consequences for bad behavior.

as for the eating, we let them pick what they want a couple nights a week, the rest of the time they get what we give them. if they complain, i usually tell them if they don't want to eat they can go bed right now, and this is usually enough to get them to eat, but they also know that if they opt for bed, that is where they will go, and i will let them sit up there for a good half an hour before i ask them if they are ready to come down and eat now. It is MUCH easier now that we have established rules.

We only scream or spank when we absolutely feel like the rules they are breaking could cause them more harm than the spanking. Meaning, if they start playing with the electrical outlets, i will put their hand in mine and slap it. I'd rather see them crying because i slapped their hand rather than crying because they got zapped by 120v. A spanking in our house consists of a single slap on the bottom, and it doesn't even have to be hard at all, they know that if i lay a hand on them, they have done something wrong. we only play that card on rare occasions.

My advice is not to give into the crying and tantrums, all it does is teach them that this is an acceptable method to get what they want, and just results in more defiance. it's not easy, and we hate to see them sad and crying, but it works wonders for us.

we spend a lot of time laughing and playing, so if we are upset or even raise our voices slightly, they notice it instantly. My kids are far from perfect, but i think they are very well behaved and well adjusted when i compare them to some of the other kids in our circle

Good luck
posted by Mr_Chips at 9:18 AM on April 20, 2008

Read The Incredible Years by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. Don't be turned off by the horrible cover -- it's a great book. My family was part of one of her studies at UW's Dinosaur School, and the techniques we all learned there have helped us all.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:46 AM on April 20, 2008

I would stress that it's important to not get emotionally entrenched with a pre-schooler. In an emotional battle of wits, you can't win - for the child there is no future, there is no past there is only NOW, and every hill is one they would gladly die on.

I found consistency is key, and for my sanity I never allowed whining of any kind. I recommend the book "Positive Discipline from A to Z" by Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott, as a handy reference. If you are like me, you will need regular bolstering to deal with strong willed children, and this book is great because it gives short, concise answers to common problems with suggestions to avoid the same battles in the future.

Good luck to you - I have teenagers now, and wish things were as easy as the pre-school battles.
posted by readery at 9:48 AM on April 20, 2008

sweetie darling, you reminded me of something from my childhood:

I could never stand, and still can't, feeling needlessly rushed or when I don't have advance warning of something. Surprises and emergencies? Fine. But you planned something for me without telling me?

But mom and dad decided a week ago that Saturday was clothes shopping day and didn't tell me until the last minute? Instant meltdown! Didn't matter whether I was 5 or 15 or 25.

Congrats for noticing that about your daughter!

One parenting method popular in my extended family was "never give them a choice" because a defiant kid will always choose the answer you don't want them to. "Eat your beans or you won't be able to go to the baseball game tomorrow." A defiant kid will instantly know which option you don't want them to choose, and choose it. So it becomes just "eat your beans."

The theory is right, but the tactic is wrong- nobody wants to feel like they are getting pushed around or manipulated, even toddlers. Give them choices, but choices that are acceptable to everyone. Kid says he doesn't like beans? Offer him carrots. Doesn't want to brush his teeth before bed? Maybe he wants to do it right after dinner because the taste of the toothpaste is unpleasant to try to sleep with in his mouth. Or maybe he wants to play trucks after dinner- he has to brush his teeth first. No teeth, no trucks. Making a kid do something he doesn't like before doing something else he doesn't like is a recipe for disaster.
posted by gjc at 9:49 AM on April 20, 2008

I don't have kids, I don't plan on having kids, but I do babysit and work in a children's department of a bookstore. I also don't generally read books on children, but I came across the Gay Uncle's Guide To Parenting and found it to be a really solid reinforcer of the sorts of responses a lot of people in this thread are giving (What's wrong with idle uninforceable threats, how to make sure a child isn't put in a situation that's bound to go wrong, giving a child some options but not every option.) It's a condensed overview of a lot of different situations, and it seems aimed for someone who doesn't want to be a drill instructor or a loosey-goosey-anything-goes sort of parent.
posted by redsparkler at 10:56 AM on April 20, 2008

Bribe him with ice cream, and if that doesn't work, you'll have to resort to medication.

In other words, if DQ doesn't work, it's off to the DR.
posted by zadcat at 11:11 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

As far as eating goes - involve him in the preparation (and if possible, the growing of) food. My 3-year-old LOVES to dig in the dirt and she's helped me plant peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce, etc. so far this spring. She enjoys going out to check on "her" plants and is enthusiastic about eating them. Grocery store produce just doesn't elicit the same enthusiastic response from her. If you don't have the space to garden, you can grow bean sprouts or herbs on your windowsill. This also creates a great many teachable moments about how plants grow, what worms do, etc.

Foods that my child enjoys preparing are quesadillas (lay a tortilla on a plate, let the kiddo sprinkle the cheese, and the zap in microwave), scrambled eggs (she loves whisking the eggs), "Ants on a log" (celery filled w/ peanut butter or cream cheese, w/ raisins as the ants), etc.

My daughter can be defiant, sometimes, so I find it a bit less of a struggle to offer her choices, for example "Do you want to hop into bed like a bunny, or fly into bed like the Wonder Pets?" This avoids the automatic "NO!" response from her.

All children are different, but when I want my child to do something quickly, I instruct her to do it and then leave the room. When I am not there, she can't argue with me :) So, I'll say "You pick up your toys. I will be back in a bit to check on you." Then I close the door and leave. She usually vocally complains while I'm still in earshot, but then does the task. When I come back, I give her LOTS of praise and then we go do something fun.

I also find that giving her the opportunity to run around and burn off some of her energy improves her behavior.

She does receive the occasional spanking, but it's only for behavior that is dangerous - for example, running out into the street. Maybe once a month or so.

Good luck.
posted by Ostara at 11:17 AM on April 20, 2008

Our main approach with our son was to pick our battles: You don't want to eat that? OK, what do you want to eat? No, you can't have that, but you can have this or this. You want to sleep on the floor in the living room instead of bed? As long as you're sleeping, makes no difference to me. Giving lots of choices you can live with, but ultimately letting the child be the one who decides, really is empowering for him.

While I really agree with a lot of what Sweetie Darling says in the rest of her answer, I have to pipe up to say that teaching a kid that every single little request is open for negotiation can really paint you into a corner down the road. A four year old needs to come to terms with who has the power and who calls the shots, so that the kid can learn to truly appreciate and savor the occasional times when his or her influence matters. In fact I think that is an important part of knowing when we reach new thresholds of maturity-- the points when we discover that our opinions carry real weight with the adults in our lives.

There is no reason why you should be run ragged providing a cornucopia of options just so the child has an array to choose from. You are already raising two children, it's hard enough work as it is. Besides, when your child stays at a friend's house or begins school, teachers and other parents need to be able to expect him to follow instructions, not forge a deal.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 11:23 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Quick question. How do YOU and YOUR HUSBAND deal with it when these unwanted behaviors sprout up? Do you give in, do you assert your authority, what? Young kids are a product of behavior reinforcement (whether its wanted or unwanted behaviors being reinforced.

Its not so much the kids, as it is how you deal with it. I can't answer this question until I know how you deal with the difficulties.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:45 AM on April 20, 2008

Zadcat, I usually don't respond to other people's answers, but I totally have to respond to yours.

"Bribe him with ice cream, and if that doesn't work, you'll have to resort to medication."

Ummm...that is the WORST advice I can possibly think of. You will either be:

1. Raising the kid on ice cream, cheetos, hot dogs, and Toys R Us.
2. Finding a doctor who will medicate your child because he doesn't want to eat his veggies.


Or maybe the book you mentioned, and the advice you had was geared towards a "friend uncle", rather than a parent who is in charge of properly raising a kid.

Either way...sorry, but horrible advice.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:57 AM on April 20, 2008

Wow, so many good answers. Thanks for that.

Ostara - Funny you mention the garden thing -- we're just planting ours now, and we also belong to a CSA in our area which will start up in a month or two. We involve DS in both the garden and picking veggies at the CSA. He enjoys it immensely, and does eat a ton of fruit and vegetables throughout the growing season, which I suppose isn't something to complain about, but it would be nice if he would eat the actual meals I cook. :) I am going to see if I can get him more involved in the preparation of meals, though, that's a good tip.

Mr Chips - Your "corner" method reminds me of the fact that I haven't actually found a method of discipline that works consistently with DS. I give him time-outs for anything related to hitting or hurting anyone, then request that he apologize, but I don't honestly think time-outs work that well. I promise to take favorite toys or treats away if he doesn't stop doing whatever it is that he's doing, and do take them if he doesn't heed my warning. I swear, the kid just gets off on pushing my buttons and is willing to sacrifice the things that he loves to do it. I wish I could find something that works.

Sweetie Darling - I totally agree, it would probably be easier if DS was in nursery school 5 mornings a week, it would provide some predictability to our days. Starting in September he'll be going 3 mornings, which may not help a lot, but our school doesn't offer 5 days until the 5s class. I love his school, so I think we'll suffer through.

Readery - At times it is a battle of wits, no doubt. The bit about the hill made me LOL.
posted by missuswayne at 12:24 PM on April 20, 2008

Offering choices doesn't have to be difficut - it's all in the delivery. The goal is to create two choices, both of which are "correct" choices.

Kid doesn't want to brush his/her teeth? Give them the choice of doing it standing up or sitting down (or standing in the bathtub, or on their hands and knees - whatever). Both options net you the same result (the kid's teeth get brushed) but the child gets empowered by choosing the method of accomplishing the desired result. If one of the options is really silly, the child will usually go for it, and feel like they had some of the power. We've done this with our daughter since she was 18mos, and it works like a charm - you just have to get creative in the choice-creation process.

As to picky eating, we've found what works is to have clearly-defined roles. The parents get to decide the content of the meal (i.e. what is offered). The child gets to decide whether to eat, and how much. If the child finishes all of the food offered, then they get to choose a follow-up option (something healthy but desirable by the child - yogurt and applesauce are two popular choices for our 3-year old). Furthermore, meal and snack times should be set in stone - if a child doesn't eat during the normal meal or snack time, they have to wait until the next meal or snack time to eat.

If the child is a picky eater and you give them the option of choosing their desired food instead of what is part of the meal, you're just reinforcing the pickiness. If the choices are "take it or leave it", the child will learn quickly that eating what's offered is a better choice than going hungry. It sounds mean, but the reality is that a child won't starve themselves if they're given the option to eat, even if the food isn't their favorite.
posted by gwenzel at 12:28 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hal - Yeah, I didn't think the ice cream advice was even worth mentioning. And it was the poster above ice cream guy that mentioned the gay uncle book.

Anyway, do we reinforce the negative behavior? We probably have from time to time, sure. Additionally, DH and I are not always 100% on the same page with discipline (although we're not way off).

I have found that if I scream and yell because DS is doing something I don't like, chances are good that he's going to scream and yell too. Like I said, I do give in sometimes because I think it's ok to let DS "win" on occasion. But when something is non-negotiable, I tell him so, and I stick with it. DS knows I have a zero-tolerance policy about hitting and kicking, but sometimes he does it anyway. Maybe to check if the policy is still enforced, I don't know. Um, what else. I try to stay calm and offer a choice if the situation is appropriate (ie, dinnertime).

(LOL - I'm feeling bad for pointing out DS's annoying behavioral traits. He really is a sweet and funny kid, and actually a lot more well-behaved than some of my friends' kids.)
posted by missuswayne at 12:35 PM on April 20, 2008

OK, I have to add this complicating factor to the whole picky eating issue. DH is a vegetarian, and a picky eater himself. If I make chicken or something that he doesn't like, he often just makes himself a bowl of pasta to eat. Oh $*, as I'm typing this I see the root of our problem. Aargh. Must. Have. Talk. With. Husband.

Gwenzel - totally agree on creating two correct choices. I do try to do that. Also using a bit of silliness at times to prompt the desired behavior. I try to remember to do that as well. Sometimes at the end of a long day it's hard to remember to be silly though, isn't it? ;)
posted by missuswayne at 12:43 PM on April 20, 2008

I have a son about a year older than yours and another about a year younger so all the stuff you're talking about, we've run into as well.

I'd like to suggest AskMoxie as great reading for any parent with small ones. Her Q&As and discussions give lots of food for thought.

As for the picky eating, this is the method we've worked out to circumvent all dinner battles: serve dessert.

Dessert is something they really like, in small portions; anything will do, it doesn't have to be pie, cookies, ice cream, etc. It can be popcorn, chips, crackers and cheese, fruit, yogurt, chocolate milk... it just has to be something they think is a great treat. Most often for us it's fruit (our kids love berries, melon, bananas, pineapple...).

When dinner is made everyone gets the same dinner, no vetoes, no substitutes. The kids get reasonable (small) portions and if it's something they insist they don't like they get a tiny portion ("three bites") - my one son changes his mind about broccoli a lot, one day he'll eat it and the next day he'll say he doesn't like it. If they clean their plate, they get dessert. And if they don't finish their dinner, well, they must not have room for dessert either - logical consequence.

Don't fuss yourself over whether they eat or not. They won't starve themselves and it's all their own choice. If they really hate something then they don't have to eat it, they just don't get dessert. If they really want dessert then they have to eat everything. My one son is a real poky eater sometimes so we've amended this to "finish dinner in reasonable time" and if he drags it out, he's done, no dessert. When there's a tantrum, stay calm, repeat the rules, proceed on to bath and bedtime.

On preview: aha, your husband substitutes meals? Tell him he can have his pasta after the kids are in bed! And don't talk about foods you don't like in front of the kids either. For instance I actually don't like most types of fruit but I never tell my kids that and if it's front of me and I can't avoid it, I take a small taste if they can see me doing it.
posted by Melinika at 12:53 PM on April 20, 2008

We've found that small phrases defining the rules work best so you can just repeat that phrase over and over until it sticks. "Use walking feet, not running feet!" Once they started going to playgroup and preschool we discovered the old standby "use your words". "We use our words, not our hands. If your brother takes your toy you say "give it back!" instead of grabbing it back." Show and model for them what you expect, they will copy you but they need to be given the framework to do it in. Something I read recently said when they do something wrong, show them what you want them to do and tell them to "try it again". ("Don't slam the door! Close it quietly. Go back and try that again") This has been working for us as well.

We encourage our kids to always express their emotions, but appropriately - when they have a tantrum we say "Screaming and crying will never get you what you want. If you want me to do X for you, you have to ask me nicely without crying." Then we try to do the same thing. "I'm very mad right now!" (identify the emotion) "I told you to clean up your puzzle three times and you still haven't done it! It makes me mad when you don't listen!" (and identify why you feel that emotion) You have to make sure you express good emotions as well - catch them being good as often as you can - "I'm happy to see you playing so nicely with your sister! She really likes to play with her big brother!"

Oh, and another thing I read a while back that has been working REALLY well for me was a (Montessori?) technique to handle interruptions appropriately: once I explained a few times to my oldest son what I expected him to do ("If you need to tell me something, and I'm busy, put your hand on my forearm. I'll let you know that I know you're waiting by putting my hand on your hand. Then if you wait patiently I'll be done in a minute and I'll be happy to talk to you") it's worked out great. He is one of those kids always bursting with things to say and I was getting frustrated when he interrupted me when I was talking to another adult or acted up while was on the phone.

Finally (sorry this is really long) we let them do stuff on their own, and we include them in chores, as much as possible. (They are 3 and 4 1/2.) When they come in they put their shoes on the shoe rack and hang up their backpacks. When they eat they put their dish and cup in the kitchen. They're allowed to get their own snacks out of the fridge and pick their own clothes. They love to help unload the dishwasher, put the laundry in the washer/dryer, put the baby's dirty diapers in the garbage can and wash their own hands (stools at every sink!). This really helps with their independence/autonomy.

Good luck - it's a challenging age and it's been a lot of (ongoing) work for us to learn ways to deal. (Still learning!)
posted by Melinika at 1:33 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't have children but I was a child, once. 2 things come to mind:

If he won't eat, don't feed him. You won't find his skeleton on the floor anytime soon. Applies to husbands too.

Teeth Brushing: my mother never taught us a single thing about hygiene. Nothing bad happened because of that either.

Then there's always this - - ignoring the behaviors you don't like and reinforcing the ones that you do. (I cannot vouch for this one.)
posted by andreap at 2:45 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have children. The picky eating thing might have to do with a pattern of setting his independence and even sporadically having that met. So, if you even sometimes make him something else to eat, he's probably holding out for the off chance you'll do it again. Perhaps you and your husband could agree to make one family meal with meat and vegetarian options. (E.g. tacos with chicken or beans) You might sometimes give your son the opportunity to choose between a couple of options, such as carrots or squash for the orange vegetable.

You may find that having preschool 3 (or 5) days a week just results in fights 3 (or 5) days a week. :) It really depends on the kid. I find that it helps to talk about the next day's plans during the previous afternoon, evening, and that morning. Lots of advance notice. Sometimes, when my child doesn't want to go, I talk about the fun thing we're going to do on the way back (library, park, looking for bugs on the sidewalk, blowing bubbles with the container stashed in my bag, etc). Or I talk about art. I have started making funny snacks, such as funny faces, rocket ships, ice hockey rinks, cars, trains, pinwheels, flowers. I just find some way to make the snack look like something. This never takes more than 1-2 minutes of work. Then my child can't wait to get to preschool to see what it is. Bonus: he eats veggies! That's the only real time I make his food look special, but it's super fun for him.

As for the "I can do it" and "I can't do it!", it's hard to be the big kid all the time...especially when your daughter is getting help with things. Play up what a good job he's doing and just accept that sometimes it is going to take longer and he is going to need help. (I know how hard that is and I won't pretend I never use anger as a motivator, even though I know that is not the thing to do.) You've probably hear "catch your child being good". So, when he is being independent, praise him. In fact, praise him whenever he does a good job. And praise hard work, willingness to take appropriate risks, and courteous behaviour.

One other your child used to eating at restaurants at all? Some kids eat out a lot and are baffled when they can't choose their own meals at home. When we take our kids out, we choose the meal or give two options.
posted by acoutu at 3:24 PM on April 20, 2008

I was an insanely picky eater (I got better when I left for college and explored food on my own.) I would happily go hungry, because I also was never really a big eater -- I didn't really get that hungry. A good example of the stubbornness mentioned upthread whereupon a kid will pick the "wrong" choice if you're not careful about those options.

Since you've got picky husband to deal with as well, kill a couple of birds with one stone. Make one of the side dishes something that everyone will happily eat, even if they don't want/like the main dish. Husband included. So everyone can pick from the dishes on the table, but no-one gets special meals. Once or twice a week, one of your picky eaters gets to pick the main dish. (Still serve a safe backup side dish in case your littlest picky one changes his mind or wants to play stubborn-hardball.)
posted by desuetude at 3:57 PM on April 20, 2008

Wow, the "kid just gets off on pushing my buttons and is willing to sacrifice the things that he loves to do it" sounds a lot like my daughter when she was a toddler. She considered punishment the price of doing what she wanted, so you can imagine negative reinforcement didn't help much.

One thing I had to do was change my perspective - as long as I felt she was deliberately pushing my buttons or choosing to defy me it would turn it into a battle. She'd say she didn't want to do something, I'd get angry because I felt she was being rude & defiant, and the next thing you know I'm in an argument with a three-year-old over applesauce. I had to realize this was a developmental stage - she was just a little kid who wanted what she wanted and hadn't learned effective ways to express herself yet. My aggravation was only giving her negative attention and reinforcing the behaviors I didn't like. It was my job to teach her how to get her needs met in a way that worked for both of us.

To that end, the screaming, whining and tantrums had to stop. I used the 'I can't hear you when you use that voice' tactic. (The key to that is consistency. One slip and you're easily in for six more months of whining.) My ears simply did not work - must be getting old. Then when she would calm down and use her indoor voice, I made every effort to give her what she wanted. If it was unreasonable, I'd still try to come up with some kind of positive reinforcement for asking nicely. I rewarded good behavior like a madwoman, (here's a sticker for brushing your teeth!) ignored (non-dangerous) bad behavior to the best of my abilities, (I hate when you sing that song 24/7, but you're singing quietly, so.....) enforced daily routines and made normal stuff like getting dressed & brushing teeth into games and an opportunity for yet more positive reinforcement. (Can you get dressed before this song is over?) I even made up ridiculous games my daughter still teases me over for the sake of my own sanity. (Let's play the quiet game!)

Above all, I didn't let the dinner table become a battle of wills. I didn't beg, plead, punish or cater her meal separately - meals were a completely neutral topic. She didn't have to eat, finish what's on her plate, or even like what was served, but she did have to sit down to the table for a respectable amount of time, and understood there were no snacks between meals if she didn't want to eat what was there.

It wasn't easy, it wasn't quick and a lot of the time I had to grit my teeth and paint a smile on my face, but it got us through a pretty rough patch. I'm sure you'll find similar coping techniques that work for your family. It sounds like you're already doing a great job; and fwiw, a lot of this looks like simple attention-seeking behavior that's super normal for an older sibling. Best of luck to all of you!
posted by Space Kitty at 5:19 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to point out that sometimes providing too many options takes you down a road you don't want go to down. Possibly having to prepare multiple meals is one consequence of that road.

Just remember: You're the parent. You have no obligation to answer "why", you don't have to provide a reason for "no." This isn't to say that you shouldn't encourage individualism or problem solving, but there should ALWAYS be a point where you can say "because I said so, the END" and it's the end.

My grandmother was 4'8" tall the day she died. She was famous for saying to grandchildren of the near 6 foot tall persuasion that it was the way it was because "I'm big and you're little." And do you think that any of us questioned that for one half of one second?
posted by TomMelee at 6:01 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

So tonight at dinner I began enforcing a new Meal Policy. I made dinner for all of us, vegetarian enchiladas and red rice, and did not make a special dinner for DS. I explained all of this to him as I was preparing dinner, and he was nonchalant about it. But when dinnertime arrived, he was devastated, and did not touch his food, and pleaded for pasta about 40 times. He did not get his pasta, and we all survived. The end. :)

Melinika - I really like that interruption thing with the arm. I'm going to try that with him. And giving DS opportunities to do things on his own, even small things, does seem to help, especially when we praise him afterwards. He does put his dishes in the sink, and a few other things, but I really need to create more opportunities for that.

Andreap - That Times article is great. I've bookmarked it. I can think of several people on whom those techniques might work.

Yay, so much good advice! Thanks everyone!
posted by missuswayne at 6:35 PM on April 20, 2008

The ice cream advice wasn't serious, I think zadcat was just poking fun at all the DH and DD and DS and so on in the original post.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:41 PM on April 20, 2008

Sounds like there's a bad power dynamic going on after reading your follow up. You take the time to cook meals that contain meat when your husband is a vegetarian?
posted by gjc at 7:50 PM on April 20, 2008

I have a 5-year-old son and a daughter who's nearly three, and they are pretty decent human beings after going through those phases. When they got really defiant, really determined to express their need for independence, shall we say, hubby and I cracked down on unacceptable behaviours with time out in bedrooms. With my son, he'd go into his room and play, but this was okay because time out to us was about calming down (for all of us) and then working out the problem and, as he got older, doing the "What do you need to do next time?" thing. My daughter freaks out if we shut her bedroom door so she sits on her sheepskin rug until I say she can get up.

My son really doesn't like eating meat that isn't processed, and my husband is a big steak eater, so we have to compromise there. We expect our son to eat what we eat, and so we put several bite-sized pieces on his plate and tell him to eat as many as he can. As long as he has a couple of pieces, we're happy and he's happy, and he's getting some of his protein. As time goes by he's gradually started eating more -- he'll eat four or five pieces at a meal now instead of chewing the same single piece for twenty minutes. In summary: keep your expectations low at first. :)

I found Parent Effectiveness Training useful, in a wishy-washy sort of way. It focuses on problem ownership (which ties into picking your battles, too) and "active listening" which you can start using with a 3-4 year old. Sometimes they just want you to acknowledge that they're big and clever and can do lots of things now. My daughter insists on dressing herself, which drives me nuts because I do things as quickly as I can and move on. I have had to force myself to relax about it and give her the time she needs, and I start her well in advance of walking out the door so neither of us is stressed.

Also, the choice thing is CRUCIAL, oh my god. State what needs to happen, then give two choices, for example: You need to get dressed now. Would you like to do that in the living room or in your own room? Don't try to trick him by giving him the option you want him to take, plus a crappy option -- make them reasonable for both of you. I admit sometimes I'm mean and offer the choice of getting dressed in front of the warm fire, or in the cold kitchen, because they're already in front of the fire and it's quicker, heh. But do as I say not as I do!
posted by tracicle at 2:40 AM on April 21, 2008

gjc - There's no power struggle with my husband and me when it comes to food. He's picky and mostly vegetarian, I love to cook and eat most anything. I do the cooking, and most meals I make are either vegetarian or fish, which he'll eat - the ones that are not contain veg sides that he'll happily eat while I enjoy my chicken or steak. If he chooses not to eat what I've made, he makes a bowl of pasta for himself, no big deal.

Does it set the best example for my son? Maybe not, but my husband is a grown-up and can make his own dinner. I'm sure my son, who was a good eater up until he turned 3, has picked up on his father's finickiness though, and is emulating it to some degree. Hopefully this will pass and he'll decide to emulate my enjoyment of a wide range of foods at some point.
posted by missuswayne at 6:46 AM on April 21, 2008

Great advice from Melinika and Space Kitty. I have a slightly different perspective, as Ms. nobeagle and I have now had our three boys (aged 4-10) for only 5 months.

I'm glad that your new meal policy didn't result in any deaths. As well, I don't think that your hubby making his own meal is that bad of a thing, because he's making it for himself. Our meal policy, is you must try 2 bites of every part of dinner. If you've tried two bites, and you don't like what's there, you can make yourself a peanut butter sandwich (we obviously have to help the 4 year old, but even if he's only loosely holding the knife as I spread, he's gettting up and not being waited on). Additionally, there is sometimes dessert (it's not announced until after dinner is done, so you don't know what, nor if, is for dessert), but one can only get dessert if they've eaten at least a serving of everything offered (we serve firsts, they control 2nds), and one's plate is reasonably clean. If you took more food than you can finish, it gets put into the fridge and it's the first part of your next meal. Lastly, you can say you don't like food, but you may not call it "disgusting" nor continue to rant about it.

The first time we had a stir fry with "gasp!" vegetables, Ms. nobeagle and I were eating cookies on our own. Since then, the 10yo has *always* eaten at least one serving. He's even "choked" down brocoli.

Consistency is the biggest thing. The 4yo (LO) had a big problem with his eyes being bigger than his tummy. He would ask for large glasses of milk (quickly we learned that he only gets a 1/2 cup at a time), and after one sip say that he's full. Similarly, he'd ask for 3rds of something he really liked, we'd ask how his stomach feels, and remind him of the rules, and he'd ask for more anyways. One bite later "my stomach hurts from full." And especially with dinner; covered milk, and reheated mashed potatoes doesn't compare to fresh strawberry miniwheats. For the first month there'd be an occurance about once a week where he'd have to save food, and he'd later claim "I'll not ask too much next time." Heck, he'd try to bargain with us that he'd learned his lesson, so we should let him skip consequences this one time. The consequences are the biggest part of learning.

Silly options; they sometimes work, but sometimes he just shutsdown, and when given an option between brushing his teeth, or standing there and letting me brush them, that he'll invoke passive resistance, and become boneless/muscleless/paralized. Can't prop him up to brush his teeth. At that point, give him a choice between brushing his teeth (with no "silly" bribe), or a consequence (no bed-time stories). "I'll turn my back and count to 20 to let you decide." Either I hit 20, and suddenly a giggling kid jumps on my back ready to brush his teeth, or I'm carrying him to bed. Ms. nobeagle and I will give him hugs and kisses, which him good sleep, and reiterate that we love him. He'll decide that he wants to brush his teeth in exchange for stories. No dice, because of consistency. Last night was the first night he refused to brush his teeth since March.

Definitely avoid the attitude that he's intentionally pushing your buttons. Heck, he might subconsciously be doing so for attention. But with a dog, or kid, if you think that they're intentionally being adversarial, you'll start becoming adversarial back. You're not raising an enemy. You're not raising a Paris Hilton. You're raising an adult who can make good, informed choices.

As part of the adult issue, definitely include them with little chores. When LO first came here, he insisted the plates were too heavy for him to carry (we'd seen him carry heavier things) to put back at the sink. He'd cry and bawl about it. Heck, one time while he was wailing I carried him into the kitchen while Ms. nobeagle held his hands to the plate, because he *always* puts his plate away after dinner.

Do overs are also a great thing. If his brother touches a toy he wants to play with and he starts screaming "noooooo" at the top of his lungs, after the crying stops, go over either politely saying "X, that's my toy, please give it back." or else saying, "X, I really wanted to play with that, may I please have it." and accepting if they do say no. If he leaves a light on, call him back to the room, and make him turn off the light. Don't just tell him he forgot to turn the light off. If he doesn't hang up his coat, he gets called back to hang up his coat.

The biggest thing is at 4, there's both boundary testing, and self exploration. If he wants to go to school in his pajamas, OK. If he wants to choose to not eat at a meal, fine. If he wants to break one of his toys (not family toys), fine. But you won't be buying him a new one. LO has expressed great regret and wants to undo breaking some of his toys (some of which I've warned him that if he trys to step on/sit on will break). And some things are not undoable. It's better for him to learn that with molded plastic at 4 than with a car at 16, or with a match at 8.

The second to last thing I can think to say, is that you and your hubby have to be 100% agreed with the rules. Hash it out behind doors, but if he says one can do X, and you say one can't do X, it sets up your child to learn to play you off of each other. I've had to go through with a few punishments that ms. nobeagle setup that I wasn't ffully in line with, and she's done the same. We discuss it after the fact, and agree how we'll handle such situations in the future, but so long as one never says they'll do anything abusive, then both of us are 100% behind each other.

Lastly, I would advocate a policy of never screaming, and never hitting. I grew up in a family of screamers, and it caused me a lot of problems. Because of my past, I will not scream at the kids ever, and have expressed to Ms. nobeagle the same thing. We're working with the kids on not screaming/yelling at each other and being respectful. But we can watch Oldest one do something mean to middle one, and 5 minutes to 2 days later, middle one will do the same thing to Little one. And then his pre-school teachers will shortly report that LO had a blow up with one of his peers. And it's not just peers. If you yell at your kids, ever, they will learn that it's ok to yell sometimes. It's similar to how if one gives into a temper tantrum, that the kids will learn that fits sometimes work.
posted by nobeagle at 1:00 PM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

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