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 | By Dr. Cathleen McGreal

“I Do It Myself!” Can You Reason With a Pre-Schooler?

Q. Our 3-year-old is driving me crazy. His favorite word is “No!” and his favorite phrase is, “I do it by myself.” He is too young to listen to reason, but I don’t believe in spanking. What’s the best way to discipline a child this young?

A. “Reasoning” with a pre-schooler

It is certainly true that the logic of a pre-schooler doesn’t match our logic. In Isaiah, when we read that the Lord says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Is 55:8), I’ve sometimes wondered if God looks upon us as quizzically as we look upon children. For example, when my daughter, Erin, was 3, I told her to put her mints where her baby sister, Kaiti, couldn’t reach them. I turned around and saw that she had placed them up her nose. Not exactly what I had in mind.

But we can discipline young children despite their unusual reasoning. Here are some tips:

• Make your expectations very clear by keeping your commands simple: “In two minutes we’ll be putting the toys away.” Then, “Two minutes is up, so you need to help pick up the toys on the rug and put them in the toy box.”

• Let the child know that he has communicated effectively even if things aren’t going to go his way: “I know you want to take a bath all by yourself, but when a boy is 3, then his mom or his dad stays in the bathroom. Older boys like your brother do take baths by themselves.”

• Clarify likely outcomes that children cannot predict to avoid disciplinary problems in various contexts: “At Grandma’s house, there are lots of cousins and that means lots of sharing. What are some toys we can bring that are good sharing toys?” Obviously this is not the place to bring a brand-new toy that wouldn’t be easily passed around!

When a child misbehaves

Parents often find that each of their children responds somewhat differently to disciplinary techniques, and they tend to modify their discipline somewhat based on the child’s temperament and personality. Time-out can be modified to be effective with many children.

• Remove the child from the “social center” of the room to a designated “time-out” spot.

• Set a timer for one minute for each year of age – two minutes for a 2-year-old, and so on.

• Explain the rule that was broken in a matter-of-fact way, rather than an angry manner.

• If the child leaves the spot early, explain that the timer has to be started again.

• Make sure that the child understands why she was in time-out!

• Re-adjust as children get older – for example, introverts might need a spot in the social center, rather than away from it!