A: Before I give you fail-proof strategies (Ha! They don’t exist!) to ease the morning transition, let’s look at your average preschooler from the inside out.
Barring any issues I don’t know about (executive functioning issues, learning issues, etc.), the average 4-year-old is not concerned with our adult schedule, even if it has to do with him and his well-being. That’s because a preschooler is focused on one thing at a time. When your son spots his Batman costume, that is the thing to do. The consideration of your schedule, the timing and your need to be places does not cross his mind (despite your warnings, reminders, nagging and logical consequences) because it cannot cross his mind.
As developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, preschool children are not in work mode. They are not interested in outcomes and results. They don’t work at something to improve themselves or come to a conclusion. Play is the essential work of a preschooler, and this is how they mature. Although our culture has placed a premium on learning and facts and tests and scores, the preschooler has only three true needs: play, rest and tears.
So, the first piece of advice I have (and this is huge and will change your parenting life) is to drop the idea that your son should care about the same things you care about. With time and maturity, your son will gain the ability to appreciate your schedule and his own, but for now, this is not realistic.
Also drop the idea that rewards and logical consequences will have a real effect on a preschooler. The problem with these choices is that the logic is trying to appeal to a part of the brain that is simply undeveloped. It would be like trying to reason with a baby who is throwing food on the floor, which no sane adult would ever do. Why not? It would occur to them that the baby is not rational. Well, a 4½ -year-old is not rational either. Yes, you will see wonderful glimpses of reason and empathy, but they will come and go as your son matures. It is normal.
So stop expecting him to care, and stop using logic to combat emotion. If you do these two things, you are already going to be on your way to a better morning.
Instead of spinning your wheels with tactics that don’t work and that only make your son’s behavior worse, you are going to use what does work with a preschooler. Watch any great preschool teacher, and you will see this at play. Here’s what you need to know to move along a preschooler:
1. A strong routine is key. Great teachers use very specific steps in a routine, inject fun (in the form of music, clapping or dancing) and lovingly keep everything moving forward.
2. Great teachers do not lecture when transitioning to another activity. They don’t point out everything going wrong — and not just because there are too many kids. They intuitively know that shaming is not the way to move a child along. A great teacher will assume children are doing the best they can and smile and move them along, even with evidence to the contrary.
3. Great teachers don’t threaten or praise. They don’t raise their voices, and they repeat things very little.
4. Great teachers try not to take everything personally. Some mornings are hard. Some mornings are easier. And because preschoolers are governed by big emotions, you have to be willing to roll with their feelings with good humor and lots of patience.
5. Great teachers don’t offer choices when transitioning to another activity. Choices, while lovely when there is time for a true choice, can quickly become a nightmare when you are up against the clock. Children aren’t mature enough to weigh a choice and move along. They will hem and haw and then choose an option you didn’t even offer. This will lead you to blow your top in frustration, and now we are back to square one.
6. Great teachers make room for the tears that come when children don’t get their way. Given his druthers, your son would play, eat, play some more, eat, rest, etc., so when you have to move him to the car, there is nothing left for him to do but cry about his reality. It is not what he wants, and it is appropriate and normal for him to feel sad. Go ahead and agree with these emotions. “Oh, this stinks to stop doing Batman, doesn’t it?” Welcome these emotions, even while moving him along.
7. Don’t get stuck in production. Don’t lecture your son about clothes and food and teeth and hair. If he won’t get dressed, scoop him and the clothes up and dress him downstairs or in the car — not to humiliate him, but to move the moment along. If he is pushing the food around, grab two waffles, put them in a paper towel, smile and say: “Eating breakfast in the car is fun. Let’s go!”
8. Finally, no matter how much you lost your patience in the morning, no matter how angry you became, no matter how big his tantrum was, make your separation peaceful and full of warmth. Hug him, smile and say: “We made it! I love you, and I am not angry.” Are you fibbing? Sure, but it is your job to control your emotions, not his. The more we can focus on the warmth, the better the transitions will become.
9. Finally, I am not above a small treat here and there. Some will gnash their teeth about this, but it is fun to have a little treat or to do something fun on Friday to celebrate. Whatever you do, don’t take away this celebration if you had a hard week. If anything, you need it more.
Find this over on The Washington Post.