Q: The terrible twos were a cinch compared with what we're going through with our 4-year-old. None of the books seem to dwell on this as a difficult age, but we are finding it a very trying one in terms of whining, lying and just plain disobeying.
Our child always has been a delight, and she still is, a lot of the time--but it seems that not a day goes by without two or three major blowups. It's not good for her, and it's definitely driving us crazy.
Is this typical? We have a new baby, but I don't think he is the cause. Our daughter was well-prepared for the competition (enlightened parents that we are), and revels in her role as big sister. She dotes on her brother, plays with him and insists on being where he is. She also gets time alone with one or the other of us regularly.
We give her lots of praise when she does obey, but that doesn't happen very often these days. She usually insists that she is doing whatever it is we want, while she sits there not doing it. Inevitably the situation deteriorates into screaming and yelling (our part) and whining and tears (hers). And usually over something trivial.
Whenever we correct her or discipline her now (we make her sit by herself in a chair for a few minutes), she goes into her teen-age mode and says dramatically, "You don't LOVE me! You don't even LIKE me! You think I'm DUMB!"
Can kids really be this manipulative at this age? At first we would get upset and reassure her that we loved her, but frankly, her act has worn thin. Now we tend to underreact. But I still feel terrible that she would even feel the need to say such things.
What are we doing wrong?
A: A Cabinet minister recently banned a number of words used in his agency's correspondence, like "hopefully" and "interface." It would be nice if we parents could delete a few from ours--like "manipulate."
Sure, children try to get what they want, and if one technique doesn't work, they'll try another. And so do mothers and fathers, bosses and workers. We all want to get our way; there's no harm in that.
And your little girl is smart enough to get what she wants--attention. And she needs it because, for all the enlightenment of her parents, there is still a little baby who's catching some of the attention she wants for herself. She likes to give her little brother her time and her love, she just doesn't want to share yours.
One side of her head doesn't mind the idea, but the other winces every time she hears you or your husband coo over the baby or compliment him. Just to hear you notice how smart he is will make her worry about being dumb.
You do need to reassure her when she throws a scene, but don't take her so seriously. A kiss and a ruffle of her hair will do fine and you can save most of your loving for unexpected times, when she isn't making demands. Lights-out visits are probably the best times for you to tell your child how much you love her and how smart she is and how nice it is to have time alone with her. She'll go right back to sleep and she'll probably smile all night.
And if you want her to smile more during the day, you can stop taking her so seriously about everything else.
After all, she is 4. This is a terrific, wild, rambunctious year, where feelings are translated into histrionics, flights of fancy become blatant lies and the small risks of a year ago become foolhardy stunts. This is the time to look the other way, even more than you did at 2 and almost as much as you will again at 13 and 15. Consider this year as good practice for life with an adolescent.
Your child is simply trying on some new behavior, like so many hats. If you don't notice them all, it will be easier to laugh at the rest.
So she says she's doing something when she's not? Thank her for it, outrageously. Walk over to the toys she says she's picking up, and fuss at them for jumping back to the floor as fast as your daughter gets them on the shelf (or even faster). Growl and stamp your foot and otherwise put on a production that makes hers look piddling.
She'll laugh too, and she even may do a little of the work. Grown-up jokes are delicious to a child, so long as she is invited to join them.
And if she doesn't help you pick up the toys, just put them in a pillowcase and tuck them casually on a high shelf. It's the old dessert routine: "Oh dear, I'm so sorry you weren't hungry enough for your beans; we're going to have ice cream sundaes tonight."
This time, you say casually, without any sarcasm, "Goodness, you're right. There really are too many toys around here to keep track of them. We'll just put these aside for a while."
Don't threaten to take them away if she doesn't pick them up or promise a treat if she does, and don't get mad. Solve the problem without her help and let her pay the consequences.
In most cases, however, you do your best to remember the two main points in your letter: The child is 4 and the problem is trivial.
Ask yourself: Do I really give a hoot? Will I still be shrieking about this in July? If you can say no to the first, you'll have entirely new things to shriek about in July.