QI’m having trouble getting my 4-year-old daughter dressed in the morning. She has a lot of nice hand-me-downs — all in good condition — but she only wants to wear the same jeans and the same shirt every day. We’ve tried timeouts when she acts like this, but they don’t help. She won’t even tell us why she won’t wear a particular shirt or a certain pair of pants.
I’ve cut out most of the tags on her clothes so she can’t say that they’re scratching her skin, and I give her a choice every night — Option A or Option B — so she can pick out which clothes she wants to wear the next day. Despite these precautions, she often winds up in tears and simply won’t get dressed.
I’ve also bought new clothes for her, but I really hate to do that because she tells me later that she doesn’t like them, even though we’ve picked them out together. I don’t remember her 7-year-old brother acting this way, nor do I think that anything is wrong in her life. She gets enough sleep, she has a fine diet, and she is seldom sick.
A Parents should try to meet their children’s needs, of course, but they shouldn’t have to try this hard. Your daughter’s needs and wants are important, but so are yours.
The question is: Where do you draw the line?
It’s so tempting to negotiate when you’re unsure of your decision and so easy to say yes when you’re rushed or tired. But this isn’t fair to you, and it isn’t fair to your daughter, either. Young children may pretend that they’re running the family show, but they still want to know that their parents are in charge. This is what makes a child feel safe. Unless your daughter knows her limits, she will push for wider and wider boundaries just to find out where she stands.
But if you change the way you handle her, she will change the way she responds — especially if you can figure out the real cause of her morning meltdowns.
If your daughter thinks that she gets more attention for being naughty than for being nice, she’s probably going to be naughty, even if she cries when she’s reprimanded or gets sent to the timeout chair. Her behavior will improve in a week or two, however, if you praise her freely when she’s good and ignore her when she’s cranky.
If that doesn’t work, look for the cause of her small obsession.
Your daughter may call those pants and that shirt her favorites because they’re more comfortable than her other clothes or because they’ve brought her more compliments.
You also may deal with your daughter better if you can come up with more imaginative responses. You could, for instance, tell her that you will wash her favorite outfit twice a week, so she can wear it every Monday and every Friday, but that you will only go to that much trouble if she wears her other clothes on the other days, without complaining about it.
If that doesn’t suit her, then consequences may be her best teacher. In this case, tell her she can wear her favorite pants and shirt to school every day as long as she is willing to wash them every night. It will take time — your time — to supervise her and make sure she does it properly. Nevertheless, your daughter will beam with pride because she did the wash herself — and you’ll be beaming, too.
Her efforts will soon get tedious for her (and certainly for you), and then she’ll suddenly tell you that she’s going to wear something else to school tomorrow, although she may not say what or why.
If she wakes up, changes her mind and melts down, tell her that she can just wear her jammies to school. That may make her cry, but she will put on something else as quickly as she can.
Send questions about parenting email@example.com
Read past Family Almanac columns.