21 answers

Seeking Suggestions for Battles with 4-Year-old

When we tell our 4-year-old son to get dressed, brush his teeth, etc., he is so slow to respond and obey. You have to practically sit on him while he dresses or it would literally take hours. He's generally fairly obedient, but not with this. It's hard to tell if he just gets distracted or if he's being defiant. Any suggestions?

What can I do next?

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I have three boys 1, 7, and 13. I have found that kids that age love sticker charts. When he does what he is suppose to without beig told he gets a sticker. When he has so many stickers he gets a reward. With my first son he got to pick dinner on Friday night.

I have found that children love timers. You may want to try setting a timer (like a digital kitchen timer), and making a "game" out of getting ready. He may find it fun to try to beat the timer. Good luck!

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Go on line and check out Growing Child. It is excellent, objective, talks about the range of healthy - not just this or that, but these - has been around over 30 years. My children are almost all grown, I still remember this as one of the best things I read. I read alot. It's available in print and /or on line, in a book and in monthly increments.
Nleda C
M. of 5

1 mom found this helpful

Make it a game. Set a timer and see if he can put his clothing on before the timer goes off. At first set it for something like 15 min. After he gets faster and can do it in less than 5 set the timer to be something shorter. That way he's always trying to beat his best time.

You can be his cheerleader and tell him to 'hurry hurry go go go!!!'

1 mom found this helpful

would not suggest this for under age three, but at this age I would suggest taking him to whatever the outing is from the home "as is" when the time arrives ...and bring clothes along so he can change into them. a couple of these events will show him you mean business about schedule

also there are "visual clocks" out there and timers. www.parenthacks.com has some great ideas for using these. I balked at this at first as felt might create anxiety with my kids but timers with beepers are working great things in our home. for ex. my husband was taking them somewhere one morning and I was staying home and he was in hurry. they wanted some time with me while I bathing (one is 2, one is 4) ..he said five minutes. I set the timer, the beeper went off ,I made one comment and they dutifully went downstairs.

go figure. I never would have thought.

hope that helps.

1 mom found this helpful

We are having similar issues with my 3+ year old. I too believe it is all about control. At this age they start to understand that a lot of people have the power of control and he/she is not one of them.

In our case, the problems started when we put him in pre-school twice a week and both my husband and I started working more hours. I think he feels out of control because he "has" to go to school and we are not always there 100% when he is home. So... what we are trying that seems to work is for one of us to spend a certain amount of intense quality time with him each day and to allow him to take control and make more decisions about other things. For example, we let him choose between two outfits for the day... He gets to choose which plate and spoon/fork to use... He gets to decide which glass to use... which shoes to wear... which books to read... you get the idea.

While he will always have some things that he has no control over, the more he does have control over, the less he will fight you on the "must do" things.

And when all else fails, we use timeouts. Most of the time, just the threat of timeout works well enough to get him back on track.

Good luck and keep us posted on how it goes!

J. B

1 mom found this helpful

Deal with this with my niece, with walking. She would go sooooo sloooowww on purpose. It's a control thing. Period, they are seeking control and attention, this is a way to get it. Just don't give it to them. If he only get's half dressed (and it's a day you are home) so what, don't say a thing. If he misses out on breakfast becuase he is too slow, well then maybe tomorrow he has better do it faster. It might seem harse but I if you use this approach I bet it won't take very long for his dehavor to change, especially if he is missing out on stuff. But, don't threaten if you won't follow thru (like if you don't hurry I'll have to leave you behind, well obvious you aren't going to do that unless he says home with dad or something). That might teach him. He is old enought to know how to manilupate and get what he wants. Possitive reward is better than punishment. So, just make a big deal when he does it right and ignore all the rest. Don't mean to come across as telling you what to do - it's just a theory.

1 mom found this helpful

My third child is 4 now and we have the same battle. I start telling him to get dressed and I keep doing things around the house. He knows I am not ready so he doesn't get ready. Now I get his clothes out and make him get dressed and tell him the importance of being on time. I have gotten in the car and started it while he stood there thinking mommy is going to leave if I don't get these clothes on. They are 4 and we just need to be organized and on hand to get them motivated. Is the T.V. on when you are telling your 4 yr old to get dressed? If it is you probably sound like the Teacher in Charlie Brown. *&N^$*#^*(#&@()*#). I turn off all noise and clearly tell him that it is time to get dressed and walk out the door.
Be consistant, organized but mostly stay calm.

1 mom found this helpful

Try taking a Love & Logic Course. It will give you ALOT of useful lifelong tips and makes parenting FUN. You will see a BIG difference in your son and yourself! Another option is to buy the Love and Logic CDs or check some out at the library. I find the CDs are more helpful than the books. Try to find: Love & Logic Magic for early childhood-birth-6 years, or Toddlers and pre-schoolers Love & Logic parenting for early childhood 6 mths to 5 years, Avoiding Power Struggles with Kids featuring Jim Fay's "Science of Control" You can search the library database from your computer and place a hold on items even if they are checked out. They will notify you by email when they are available. Good Luck!!!!
~Leigh Ann~

1 mom found this helpful

I probably don't have much advice to tell you. I have 3 kids and they have done well at getting themselves ready since they were about 3 years old. I guess it was always routine and they learned quick. I had their clothes laid out before they woke up. When they wake up they put on their clothes, come into the kitchen and eat breakfast, go to the bathroom and brush their teeth and hair, get their shoes on and coats ready and if they had time left they could watch TV or play their video games until time to leave. My 8 year old learned quick this year when he got up and played video games before he got ready. He was grounded from games for a week. He now stays with his routine. Now they are older and all I have to do is make sure they are awake and they now pick out their own clothes and get ready with that same routine they learned when they were little but added showers to their morning routine so now it's like a race to be the first one to get the nice hot shower.

1 mom found this helpful

My 4 1/2 year old son is the same way. He's been like that pretty much all along. He's also that way with eating a meal. Like your situation, other than these tasks, he's an obedient child. He does get distracted very easy. He's been doing better, here's what we've tried:
No TV on when we're trying to get out the door. We have races to see who can be ready first. This has worked about the best. It just doesn't work for a real long period of time. It was one of the first things we did to help prove to him that he could do it. I've also had to be a little drastic and tell him that if he's not ready when it's time to go, I'm taking him like he is, and that I don't think he'll like going to preschool in his underwear and everyone seeing his undies. Hope this sparks some ideas for you!

1 mom found this helpful

my 4 yr old son does this too. Although not with the brushing thing. if he could brush his teeth every half hour he would. lol anyway, what i do is as soon as he gets up, he has to make his bed or no breakfast. He usually does it no problem. After breakfast he has to get dressed. If he doesn't get himself dressed, he doesn't get to play with his toys inside and he doesn't get to go out to play. He stays in his room till he does get himself dressed. Even if his 3 yr. old brother gets dressed(he can dress himslf) and gets to play he won't be allowed to. It usually works for us.

1 mom found this helpful

Maybe giving him some simple choices will give him the feeling of control he probably wants. Try saying-do you want to put on this shirt or that shirt? Do you want to wear your tennis shoes or your crocs? Beth Cita-Mother of 4, Granny of 5

1 mom found this helpful

When we're having trouble motivating our 4-year-old son to do something, we make it into a race or we'll say "I'm going to count to 10, lets see if you can get dressed before I'm done!" Then we count slow enough to allow him to "win" - he's always so excited when he is faster than us. We use this in a fun way - not "if you're not dress by the time I count to 10 then you're in trouble" kind of way. This does not work for everything, and it may not be appropriate to use all the time.

Maybe this will help a little - you may have already tried it, but I thought I'd share what we do. Good luck!

My suggestion would be for you to happily continue helping him get dressed and brush his teeth. Eventually he will want to do it on his own. All kids are at different phases and speeds in their development.

I helped our daughter with her teeth until she was in school. It was no big deal and we laughed and had fun with it.

As parents, we need to pick our battles and help our kids grow and develop. I don't think this is worth forcing him to do on his own if he isn't ready.

Hi, A.. Wow! All the responses just show that we are truly not alone. I also have an almost 5 year old son who likes to find a bazillion things that he has to do first before doing what has been asked. (No better time for him to pick up a few toys than when we're running a bit late!! ) hehehehe As so many have suggested, the race game works better than anything else. Also, the tv goes off so he won't be distracted. I have also learned to start the process a little earlier to give us a little wiggle room. On those days that he is 'superfast', I make sure he gets a treat. A sticker, a small rubik's cube or even an extra bedtime story seems to work well. Or sometimes he wants to pick the music to play in the car.
Hopefully this will get better! Good luck!


I have three boys 1, 7, and 13. I have found that kids that age love sticker charts. When he does what he is suppose to without beig told he gets a sticker. When he has so many stickers he gets a reward. With my first son he got to pick dinner on Friday night.

My three year old daughter is the exact same way. Usually, I have to tell her to hurry and if that is not effective, I count to three. At three she loses whatever priveledge she is wanting - or time out if there is nothing to take. Sometimes, I am able to use the "after you get dressed we can..." That is actually the most effective method, but if all else fails, there is always the counting. The trick is to be sure that at 3 something actually happens and that you aren't counting to 3 more than once. My husband will start over once he finds 2 so that he never has to reach 3. She knows that he won't get to 3 and doesn't worry about it. For me she puts a rush on it. Hope this helps :)

I had the same thing happen when my daughter was that age. I made her a visual schedule of things to do and the order to do them in. I also made little pockets so that after she had completed one task she would move it over to the completed side. I used the colors green for go and red for stop since she couldn't read. It really helped. I just used tagboard and drew the pictures myself. She has always been a child that has benifited from visual supports to help her with her schedule.

I have found that children love timers. You may want to try setting a timer (like a digital kitchen timer), and making a "game" out of getting ready. He may find it fun to try to beat the timer. Good luck!

I have an almost-5-year-old that is exactly the same way. He's not being defiant, he's just a really SLOW mover. One thing that helps is that I let him get up, and have a few minutes to wake up before I say anything to him or make him do anything. Before he starts school next fall, I am going to give him a few minutes of cartoons, then turn the tv off, do breakfast, get dressed and brush teeth without doing anything else in the mean time. Luckily I have a daughter that is really independent! This isn't much advice, I really just wanted to encourage you that your son isn't abnormal!

A friend of mine just sent me some great advice from "The Natural Child Project" I am going to try and copy and paste it to you and also send it out to all mom's. It is the best advice to us--parents/adults--to remember, Our children are just that--children. At 4 years old, we can not expect them to dress themselves and brush their teeth by themselves, their brains aren't developed at that level yet. The average age for a child to dress self in a morning routine without difficulty is actually 9 years old. Your little boy is very normal, he is not being defiant, he just needs you to guide and help him. His distraction is just what it is...he is four and his priorities are different. Try a positive encouragement approach to dressing and/or making it into a fun game. Children respond better to happy, fun, and exciting routines. Look for the 10 notes of wisdom to follow.
God Speed, M.
Okay, so it looks like I can add it into this note:

By Jan Hunt, M.Sc.

(from the Natural Child Project)

1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready.

We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 4-year-old to clean his room. In all of these situations, we are being unrealistic. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment and setting up the child for repeated failures to please us. Yet many parents ask their young children to do things that even an older child would find difficult. In short, we ask children to stop acting their age.

2. We become angry when a child fails to meet our needs.

A child can only do what he can do. If a child cannot do something we ask, it is unfair and unrealistic to expect or demand more, and anger only makes things worse. A 2-year-old can only act like a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old cannot act like a 10-year-old, and a 10-year-old cannot act like an adult. To expect more is unrealistic and unhelpful. There are limits to what a child can manage, and if we don't accept those limits, it can only result in frustration on both sides.

3. We mistrust the child's motives.

If a child cannot meet our needs, we assume that he is being defiant, instead of looking closely at the situation from the child's point of view, so we can determine the truth of the matter. In reality, a "defiant" child may be ill, tired, hungry, in pain, responding to an emotional or physical hurt, or struggling with a hidden cause such as food allergy. Yet we seem to overlook these possibilities in favor of thinking the worst about the child's "personality" .

4. We don't allow children to be children.

We somehow forget what it was like to be a child ourselves, and expect the child to act like an adult instead of acting his age. A healthy child will be rambunctious, noisy, emotionally expressive, and will have a short attention span. All of these "problems" are not problems at all, but are in fact normal qualities of a normal child. Rather, it is our society and our society's expectations of perfect behavior that are abnormal.

5. We get it backwards.

We expect, and demand, that the child meet our needs - for quiet, for uninterrupted sleep, for obedience to our wishes, and so on. Instead of accepting our parental role to meet the child's needs, we expect the child to care for ours. We can become so focussed on our own unmet needs and frustrations that we forget this is a child, who has needs of his own.

6. We blame and criticize when a child makes a mistake.

Yet children have had very little experience in life, and they will inevitably make mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of learning at any age. Instead of understanding and helping the child, we blame him, as though he should be able to learn everything perfectly the first time. To err is human; to err in childhood is human and unavoidable. Yet we react to each mistake, infraction of a rule, or misbehavior with surprise and disappointment. It makes no sense to understand that a child will make mistakes, and then to react as though we think the child should behave perfectly at all times.

7. We forget how deeply blame and criticism can hurt a child.

Many parents are coming to understand that physically hurting a child is wrong and harmful, yet many of us forget how painful angry words, insults, and blame can be to a child who can only believe that he is at fault.

8. We forget how healing loving actions can be.

We fall into vicious cycles of blame and misbehavior, instead of stopping to give the child love, reassurance, self-esteem, and security with hugs and kind words.

9. We forget that our behavior provides the most potent lessons to the child.

It is truly "not what we say but what we do" that the child takes to heart. A parent who hits a child for hitting, telling him that hitting is wrong, is in fact teaching that hitting is right, at least for those in power. It is the parent who responds to problems with peaceful solutions who is teaching his child how to be a peaceful adult. So-called problems present our best opportunity for teaching values, because children learn best when they are learning about real things in real life.

10. We see only the outward behavior, not the love and good intentions inside the child.

When a child's behavior disappoints us, we should, more than anything else we do, "assume the best". We should assume that the child means well and is only behaving as well as possible considering all the circumstances (both obvious and hidden from us), together with his level of experience in life. If we always assume the best about our child, the child will be free to do his best. If we give only love, love is all we will receive.

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