Written by Doctor G

Teaching Preschool Independence

I read your article about sticker charts with interest.  My four year old son is not at all interested in rewards. We have been trying to get him to take more responsibility for himself, like picking up toys or putting shoes and a coat where it belongs.  He follows us around, and says he is scared to be in a room without us, which seems like an excuse to not do the things we are asking.  Really, teaching some independence in basic skills has been difficult. He requires us to help, stand with him, follow him everywhere before he will do things about the house. I was curious about time without social interaction as a motivator. He freaks out when a consequence includes temporary loss of contact with me. I felt that was brutal, possibly because he acts like he is a about to die!  He is very verbal but can’t explain why he won’t go do the things we are asking him to do.  How can I fix THIS without a sticker chart?

Lindsey, on Facebook

Your son sounds like a completely normal, bright four year old.  He is afraid to be in a room by himself.  He wants your attention.  He works harder at avoiding tasks than he would have to work to just accomplish them in the first place!  Sound about right?

First, let’s talk about his fear.  Preschool to young elementary school age children often go through this season of fearfulness when they get old enough to realize that there is such a thing as danger.  This knowledge is healthy!  However, understanding that he can’t always keep himself safe combined with a fantastic imagination and the still blurry edge between reality and make-believe leave him understandably a little freaked out to be alone!

You do not have to talk him out of being afraid.  He will grow out of this, but it can take a long time.  You can maybe speed that up a little by showing empathy about his concerns and a calm certainty that he is safe in your home.

Now about independence!  Your little boy wants to do things for himself, but on his terms and at his own whim.  You need him to learn to zip, wipe, clean, hang, carry for himself.  And so the battle of wills starts here.  But YOU have an ace in the hole.  Your attention.  He wants your attention more than anything.  THAT is his reward.  So link the two.

Example: picking up toys.  Let him know about 10 minutes before it is time to stop playing and clean up.  Give however many warnings you think are reasonable.  When it is time for him to clean up, explain the new deal:

“James, it is time to clean up your toys.  You have 10 minutes for clean up. If you say ‘Yes Mom,’ and start to clean up, I will hang out in here with you while you do it.  If you keep playing or don’t clean up I will remind you one time.  At the end of ten minutes we can do a puzzle together if you have everything put away.  If you don’t clean up in that time I’m going to go back to the kitchen and you’ll need to finish on your own.” If he is genuinely scared of being alone, you can move out of the room but still in his sight.

This way, you reward him with your presence, and there is a natural consequence.  If he listens and does as you’ve asked he gets more of your time and attention.  If he doesn’t, he will get less.  No stickers needed!

He may freak out when you enact your end of this deal and go back to the kitchen.  But you know he is not going to die.  You may be tempted to duct tape his mouth closed, but you won’t and he will survive!

Lindsey, I hope you’ll let me know if this works for you and your son.

Anyone else have suggestions for a kid who laughs at the reward system?

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