How to Get Almost 4 Year Old to Follow Directions

Updated on August 05, 2009
M.M. asks from Eden Prairie, MN
11 answers

My son will be 4 in August and has a tough time doing what is asked of him. He refuses to pick up his toys, put clothes down the laundry chute, and other simple tasks that I ask of him. He's always had a tough time listening, but I am now at my wits end. I have asked him nicely, I have tried to make cleanup time a game, I have put him in time out, and I have yelled and screamed at him. Nothing seems to work. This week after he refused to clean up his room for 3 days straight I finally went in with a garbage bag and cleared off all his shelves. Today he made a threw completed art projects all over the room and refused to clean these up. At bedtime, when it was still not clean, I told him I would not read him a book until he did what he was asked to do. I explained to him in a calm and gentle voice that I do not want to do nice things for him if he can't do nice things for me. Now, he loves story time and kept insisting I read him a book, yet he still would not clean up the mess. I left his room without reading a book. What can I do to make him follow directions? Nothing I've tried seems to work and I am desperate for some help.

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answers from Minneapolis on

Kids this age often have trouble knowing where to start. An adult can look at a room and say: I see books that need to go on the shelves, cars that need to go in the bin, clothes in the laundry basket, etc. Preschoolers look at the room and are overwhelmed. What has worked for us is that we clean it up together AND I give some guidance, mostly in helping him to visually "sort" the mess. "I'll pick up all the books, you find all the legos and put them in their bin." Then, when we're both done with those tasks, "You pick up the trains and tracks, I'll put the cars away." Now that we've been doing this for awhile, I'll often ask him "look around the room, what do you see that you can clean up next." He'll say "I see blocks." Great, pick up all the blocks. They just can't break down tasks into smaller parts the way adults can, and so they don't know how to begin. But you can teach him how to do that by modeling and suggesting.

It also sounds like it's become a power struggle for you both, so you might try to find some way to reset. Depending on your kid, you might be able to sit down at some point when you both have some time, no hurry, nowhere to go (I know, like that ever happens) - when you don't have the other kids pulling you in other directions, when you can just sit with him for a few minutes - and talk about it. You're both very frustrated, you can talk about (briefly) what you're frustrated about (I feel sad when I see your toys and clothes on the floor, because I don't want them to be broken or ruined.) and ask him why he gets frustrated when you ask him to put his clothes away, or whatever. And he might be able to tell you something useful about why he reacts the way he does! Just clear the air - briefly! - and without blame. Then say, let's try to find a new way to do this together, a way that will keep both of us from being frustrated. Let's go right now and look at your room, and see if we can figure this out.

Good luck!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Duluth on

Are you simply asking him to clean up his WHOLE room? Or are you breaking it down into manageable tasks? My 5 year old son CAN clean up his room, but he either needs someone to break it down for him (Put your Playmobile stuff away. Make a pile of books. Find the laundry and put it in the hamper.) or even for someone just to sit in his room with him. He gets too easily distracted when I simply get mad and tell him to clean his room, and he gets distracted and starts playing again with what I'd asked him to put away. I definitely agree with taking away what he can't put away, but I also believe that catching the success generally works better with more stubborn children than punishment and negativity. And I do think that depending on his development, he may not be able to simply clean up his room but need it broken down into more manageable tasks. My son LOVES to have a clean room, and loves to show off his clean room, but hates doing it--I think because it's so overwhelming.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from St. Cloud on

We started making our kids (4 and 2) answer "yes maam' or "yes sir" when we ask them a direction. We aern't extremely strict on this so they don't always BUT if they don't listen to something the FIRST time I say is, I have them look at me and I say "YES MAAM" and they do whatever it is I'm asking RIGHT AWAY! I don't know why it works but it does.

It makes them acknowledge that they were given a task to do and then they just do it! This works for BOTH our 2 year old and 4 year old.

As for giving them tasks. I do actually tell them to go pick up the toy room and they just go do it (and actually do a really good job) when I hear the yes maam after my request. When I don't hear it, they usually either ignore my request or go and PLAY in the toy room. LOL. So, it's not always that you need to dictate every little thing you need them to do. But don't give out too hard of jobs either.

Good luck. I hope it works for you.



answers from Minneapolis on

Do/ have you picked up with him or are you expecting a 4 year old to know how to do it by himself? He may have done it in the past, and he is now obviously pushing his boundaries. You need to be firm and stand your ground. Show him how you want it done and let him know that you expect this from him. The next time it doesn't happen that way, all activities are suspended, even if you need to walk out the door to get to something. Or if there is a family event planned, have a sitter on standby and let him know that if he doesn't do what is now expected, he can not go. Or go to bed. Or eat dinner. Or go play outside. Tell him that he can ask for help, but instead of not doing what is expected, he needs to ask, not wait for you to ask him if he needs help.

I don't remember the authors name, but a good book for you to read is "Children with Boundaries". It is from Christian authors, but not extremely Christ centered if you are a non-believer.



answers from Minneapolis on

Love and Logic class is awesome! See if you can get into one in your area. Website is
This has been very helpful to us!



answers from Des Moines on

My oldest son, who is now 13, had a hard time with verbal commands at this age. He was weak verbally, and at first I thought he was just naughty. We ended up getting speech therapy, but one of the things they taught me was to use pictures to show him what to do. So we had picture chore charts. You can even get a picture of him doing the work, and put them in order for him. That was it is not you telling him to do it, but he can easily understand. It helps take away the power struggle, and then you can reward the good behavior.

I don't know if your son has this problem or not, but sometimes boys are a little weaker verbally, this is just something that worked for us. Best of luck to you!



answers from Bismarck on

One motto at our house is "catch em being good." We REALLY go overboard with the positive praise for even the smallest things. But kids love the praise and want to please you even if it seems like they don't. If you use this with your other boys too maybe you'll see some results with your middler.

I'm NOT saying no negative reinforcement for misbehavior. But I am saying look for those good behaviors and offer lots of praise for them--even if it's things you expect him to do and wouldn't normally comment on. It's a great thing at our house and we can always find something good our boys are doing.




answers from St. Cloud on

I think what you did was great with his toys. I only had to do that once each with my older to and they now clean. Keep it up, if he refuses to clean up, continue to put it is garbage bags. Clean up is a chore that needs to start at a young age. Does your 2 year old clean up??

With the art mess, maybe stepping in before the room is a mess and using time out if the behavior continues.

My daughter struggled with the laundry issue as well and her basket is right next to her bedroom door. I stopped doing her laundry as she chose her own clothes. I believe she wore dirty clothes once and that reformed that behavior. She also warned her younger brohter to put his clothes in basket or mom will not wash them!!

I don't know about reasoning with your 4 year old?! You are the Mom and he is the child.

Be strong, I know it can get very frusterating.



answers from Sheboygan on

I feel your pain! My daughter just turned 5 and is the same way, but it comes and goes. It's like she protests just to have control. Even giving her choices (put your books on the shelf OR the legos in the box and I'll do the other) is often met with resistance. There are also many times I tell her to do something (put clothes in the hamper) REPEATEDLY and she just dilly-dally's around. UGH!! (and yes, I know she has heard me!) Anyway, someone had recommended "Discipline with Love and Logic" on a previous post--I just picked up a copy but haven't read it yet. I also picked up "Your Defiant Child" and intend to read that too. Hang in there!



answers from Minneapolis on

We had, and sometimes still have the same difficulty with my 5 year old daughter. One thing that I found out, is that sometimes when there is a big mess the task seems too overwhelming for her (ie... she can't figure out where to start so she throws a tantrum or refuses to clean instead). It helps her if I go to the room and break down the tasks into manageable ones with her. Like, first lets pick up all the markers. After that's done, I'll say, now it's time for the paper. And so on. We still have some defiance, but this seems to be the strategy that helps the most.



answers from Waterloo on

M. - stay strong! In my opinion you are on the right track with throwing things in the garbage if he can't pick them up. I have a friend that cleaned out their child's room. Seriously they took EVERYTHING out of their room except their bed and dresser - they were left with clothes and the sheets on their bed. Everything was put away and they were told until they could learn to pick up and be responsible they could get them back. And SLOWLY they earned their stuff back. It took about 2 months before the child had a normal room back again but this was very effective. We watched that child grow alot in their attitude and the way they treated their parents. They are now much more respectful and do what is asked.
I know it is harder on the parents to enforce tough love but I think in the end it is best for the child. Good Luck!

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