Q: I have a 4-year-old who moves at a snail’s pace while doing routine things (getting dressed, getting in the car, getting out of the car, putting on shoes). I request, I encourage, I plead, I demand, I reward — but nothing changes. She goes at her own pace when it’s an everyday have-to-do kind of thing. Is there any way to speed her up? (In the meantime, I have an 18-month-old who can do all these things in record time with no prompting.)
A: I am sure that there are many parents who are in this exact pickle. It is so normal for children to drag their feet that parenting culture has sprouted entire industries to combat it. Whether it be sticker charts, consequence charts, punishments (contracts to lose technology, for example) or rewards (payments in the form of toys, points or money), there is no shortage of strategies to try to get kids to move it along.
Here is something I don’t know: Has she always been like this? Distracted, in her own world, intensely focused on projects? It is neither good nor bad if the answer is yes, nor am I suggesting you run out for a diagnosis. It is just important to understand your child’s true temperament, meaning which behaviors can be changed and which behaviors simply need to be managed.
For the sake of this column, let’s assume that this behavior has cropped up in the past two years (which is developmentally normal) and is getting worse. Before we answer, “How can we speed her up?” we need to answer, “Why do children slow down?”
An easy mental habit to help you here is to ask yourself, “What makes me feel like slowing down?” Some of your answers might be when you feel pushed, bossed around, yelled at, threatened, nagged or harassed. Now ask yourself: “Am I doing any of those things? Which and how much and when?”
As the clarity keeps coming, then ask, “What makes me feel like moving along with others in an efficient and helpful way?”
1. I feel prepared for what is coming and know why we are doing it.
2. I feel as if I am part of the solution, not part of the problem.
3. I feel as if others in the group are organized and calm.
4. I feel as if others are counting on me, in a good way.
5. I feel listened to and not spoken at (nagged or bossed around).
6. I feel like the others are generally positive and smiling.
7. I feel like there is enough time.
If you really look at this list, some interesting things are going to pop out at you. People who move forward easily generally don’t need to be rewarded (although if there are executive functioning or sensory issues, some rewards can work), so you can begin to drop the obvious rewards. You also mention demanding and pleading: These are also not going to move a 4-year-old along.
So what can you actually do? Let’s make another list based on what does move a child along:
1. You may think that your daughter knows what she needs to do every morning, but remember: Four-year-olds don’t always think about others’ needs. Take a quiet morning on a weekend and stage the three or four must-do’s for each morning (or whichever time needs help). Take pictures of everyone completing their must-do’s and hang them up. Make it fun. Get stickers and markers and be silly. This serves as a nice visual reminder for the children (and you).
2. As developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, “Connect before you direct,” and even more important, “Connect for the sake of connection.” This means that when children feel loved and seen and heard, they are more likely to cooperate and move along. Connection looks like taking 10 minutes to cuddle, read, play and generally enjoy your daughter before you start directing her. This small moment of connection will yield wonderful results, especially if you connect for no other reason than connection’s sake.
3. Let your actions speak for you. Substitute all the nagging with moving the child along physically. Not pushing her around literally, but gently guiding and pointing. This may sound as if you will be playing charades, but check out Vicki Hoefle’s book “Duct Tape Parenting” and how your getting quiet can really bring out the best in your children.
4. Understand the interior of the 4-year-old mind. I love “Rest, Play, Grow” by Deborah MacNamara and the Louise Bates Ames series of books. Four-year-old children are creative, imaginative, full of vigor and easily tired and can have strong opinions. Four-year-old children can be stubborn and are known to not be overly concerned with our parental objectives. They want to play and run and build and eat and sleep. Stop expecting your daughter to want what you want, to care about what you care about and to want to move as fast as you want to move. When you drop these expectations, you will find a way to relax and not take her so seriously.
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