I once heard from a mother who was struggling with her three-year-old. The girl didn’t take “No” answers well, even when they practiced. When she earned a consequence she either wouldn’tdo the chore or would holler if it was the removal of a privilege. If the mother gave her a “No" answer to anything, the girl would flop on the floor and scream. If she didn’t get what she wanted from her siblings, she would yell and hit them. She was a sweet girl, but she was also very strong-willed and determined to get her way.
The mother didn’t know if she was just expecting too much from her daughter. She didn’t think it was too much to expect her to use her words to tell her parents what was going on instead of hitting. She also didn’t think it was too much to expect her daughter to get her shoes and socks when they were getting ready to leave. The girl always wanted to go with the family but refused to do the simple tasks for them to be able to walk out the door. The mother was at her wit’s end and wanted some help managing her daughter.
Ah, three-year-olds! You have to love them. They have so much energy and excitement for life. In many ways we can take lessons from three-year-olds. They really understand what it means to be passionate about something. The question is, how do we channel all that great energy and help them learn how to govern over their impulses?
Some of My Thoughts
Remember not to ask a power-hungry three-year-old to do things. Instead, give her instructions. "I need you to ... please." You don’t even have to add the please. She might need more practice saying “OK.” Saying “OK” is a huge step for a three-year-old. Praise her a lot when she does it. If you act silly because of her, she’ll want to do it again. I know some people think this sounds fake, but small children often need things over-exaggerated to understand meanings.
Regarding consequences, if you’re going to use extra chores and loss of privileges for three-year-olds, you absolutely must make sure they’re in instructional control before you talk about what consequence they’ve earned. This means they’re ready to say “OK” to any instruction you give them because they’re respecting you as a parent. If you tell out-of-control toddlers the negative consequences they’ve earned before they calm down, they’ll often decide to have an even larger problem.
I simply describe what they’re doing, such as “You’re whining right now." Or, I help them understand my position as a parent by saying, "I know you want to tell me something right now, but I can't talk to you when you’re yelling. You need to take some deep breaths and then I can talk to you."
The perfect consequence for a three-year-old is time out. If she yells, whines or throws a tantrum, then she’s out of instructional control and needs to calm down. Softly, take her by the hand and guide her somewhere for time out. Sit her down gently and tell her, "You need to sit in time out to get happy and be ready to say ‘OK’ to Mom. When you’re happy, then I’ll start the timer for three minutes because you’re three. When the timer dings, we’ll hug and talk about things."
If your child is mature enough to use loss of privileges, then go ahead. If you think she forgets why she earned a particular consequence, put a note on your cupboard that tells what she earned and why. Show her the note so she remembers what she chose and what she should have chosen.
Some three-year-olds have a problem understanding that every time they choose bad, bad happens. Solving this can be as simple as a cause and effect lesson. If someone — like a tired adult or a frustrated sibling — gives in to her outbursts or pouting, she sees that it works. She learns that if she can outlast someone; that she can get her way. Even three-year-olds want power.
We want children to have the power and to understand that following principles and learning self-discipline is power. To have this power, they need to learn how to control themselves. Once they can control themselves, they’ll automatically earn more power.
Consistency Is Key
Be consistent with your three-year-old. When she chooses bad or chooses to not disagree appropriately, you simply take her by the hand and walk her to time out. If you do that every time, you should see some noticeable improvement within a week. Consistency on the parent's part teaches cause and effect.
Three-year-olds can change. Age three is such a great time for molding small minds. Three-year-olds who learn what’s right and wrong are very strong. When my daughter was three years old, she started telling people what kinds of words they should and shouldn't say and what kinds of clothes they should and shouldn't wear. She knew what our family believed and wouldn't stand for anything less.
Three-year-olds have passion. If channeled correctly, they can be truly inspiring — even to adults.