Algorithm for Taming an Almost 4 Year Old

posted Jan 23, 2012, 3:14 PM by Dean Brettle
[NOTE: I originally posted this to my old site in 2005, but I have received occasional feedback about it ever since, so I'm copying it here.]

Lately, Julia's behavior has been getting increasingly frustrating.  She's taking Joshua's toys away from him, running into the street by herself, throwing tantrums over the smallest things, not doing what she's asked (or doing it at a snail's pace), and generally being obnoxious.  I suspect there are a variety of causes, including sibling rivalry, attention seeking, limit testing, and perhaps some sort of physiological change which makes it harder for her to control herself.  No matter the cause, her behavior puts me in a very bad mood and brings out the control freak in me.  I find myself constantly yelling at her or giving her timeouts.  Unfortunately, that sort of treatment is only making the situation worse, and it certainly isn't the unconditional parenting approach I was shooting for.

One night after I'd regained some semblance of calm, I decided to focus on finding a solution to the problem.  The programmer in me took over, and I found myself creating a flowchart for how to deal with various behaviors.  I'm reasonably happy with what I came up with.  I think it balances the unconditional parenting approach with the need for consequences under some circumstances.  I decided that there were three types of behavior that needed to be addressed: disobedience, unethical behavior, and tantrums.


Disobedience is when we ask her to do (or not do) something and she doesn't do it (or continues to do it).  When I examined my own motivations, I realized there were three reasons I wanted her obedience:
  1. Obedience makes my life easier.
  2. Obedience is part of respect for authority which is an important value.
  3. Sometimes safety requires obedience (e.g. "Stop!" or "Don't touch that!").
Making my life easier would be a nice side effect of her being more obedient, but it wasn't a driving force in shaping my approach.  Keeping her safe and helping her develop respect for authority are what is truly important.

I decided that my treatment of her was actually modelling disrespectful behavior and was thus counter-productive.  So I vowed that an important part of the approach would involve me being more respectful of her whenever possible.  That would need to be balanced with the occasional need to put safety first even if that meant being less respectful.  So, here's the algorithm I came up with:
  1. Decide if the matter is urgent.  If it is, skip to step 4, otherwise continue.
  2. Show respect for her. If possible, give her a goal and let her figure out what she should do.  For example, "It's almost time to go to school, what do you think you should do?".  If she can't figure it out, ask politely: "Put on your shoes please."  If she doesn't comply, ask "Why?"
  3. If she doesn't have a good reason, look for a compromise.  For example, if her reason for not putting on her shoes is "because I don't want to", ask what she *does* want to do and then say "OK.  Do that for a couple minutes and then put on your shoes please."  If she still doesn't comply, treat the matter as urgent (see next step).
  4. For urgent matters, say "Please do X right now."  The phrase "right now" is the indication that she must comply immediately.
  5. If she doesn't comply, say "Apparently I can't trust you to do what I ask when it is important, so I'm afraid you are going to have to (live with some consequences)."  Whenever possible, the consequences should be "natural" instead of "punitive".  If she didn't put on her shoes, put them on for her but she doesn't get to choose which ones.  If she didn't hold my hand while crossing the street on the way to the park, we don't go to the park.  A timeout is only used when I can't come up with a more natural consequence.

Unethical Behavior

Unethical behavior is when she does something wrong even though she should know it breaks the Golden Rule.  Disobedience doesn't generally break the Golden Rule -- she shouldn't obey me in hopes of me obeying her.  However, violence, teasing, not sharing, and other antisocial behaviors do break the Golden Rule.  My primary goal in addressing this behavior is to get her to think for herself and think before she acts.  Here's what I came up with:
  1. Start by asking "Why did you do that?".  
  2. If she doesn't have a good explanation, ask "Was that the right things to do?  Why not?  What should you have done?  Why?" and correct her answers as necessary.  Her answer to the "Why?" question should be something like "Because I would like it if someone else did that."
  3. If the issue is not a safety issue, just wait to see if it reoccurs.  If it is a safety issue or if it is not a safety issue but it reoccurs, tell her to "Go think about it."  This is not a normal timeout.  It is more like a self-regulated timeout.  She is expected to spend some (unspecified) amount of time thinking about what she did wrong, what she'll do next time, and why.  She decides when she's done.
  4. If the behavior reoccurs again, say "Apparently, you can't control yourself right now, so I'm afraid you are going to have to (live with some consequences)."   The consequences should be natural but not vengeful.  For example, if she was teasing someone I *don't* tease her to "show her how it feels".  Instead, she has to stay away from the person she was teasing.  If she didn't share something, I take it away temporarily.  A timeout is only used when I can't come up with a more natural consequence.


By tantrums, I'm not referring to run-of-the-mill crying.  That can normally be addressed with a hug and a "What's wrong?".  Instead, I'm talking about prolonged screaming, crying, and thrashing about.  I believe tantrums are actually therapeutic for a child.  They help her vent, and eventually help her learn how to regain control of her emotions.  The problem with tantrums is that they are incredibly disruptive and can be used as an attention seeking mechanism.  My approach is to calmly tell her "You are disturbing the rest of us.  If you need to have a tantrum, please go to your room until you calm down."  That both removes the audience, gives her permission to vent, and encourages her to learn how to get her emotions back under control.  Of course, sometimes she refuses to go to her room.  In that case, it becomes a disobedience issue and if necessary, I physically take her to her room.


I've been trying to use the above approach for the past couple weeks.  The hardest thing is to remember to actually do it.  Old habits die hard, and I sometimes still find myself just losing my temper.  But, when I do remember to do it, it does seems to help.  Hopefully my behavior will get better over time, and Julia's will follow.