Hi, Dr. Conte,
I have a three-year-old son (he will be 4 in January) who is very headstrong and very determined, but he’s also very very intelligent. My problem is with getting him to listen to me when I tell him “no.” He always talks back to me. What can I do to prevent this from happening? I’ve tried everything to get him to listen to me – I’ve given him treats, I have talked to him, I’ve tried to explained certain things to him, and he continuously does naughty things despite knowing the consequence and why he’s not supposed to do those things. For example, he has a problem with climbing on the entertainment center, or going in the refrigerator numerous times and just standing there with the door open, or running water forever and not turning it off. And the screaming and the yelling that he does – I’m telling you, it’ll break your eardrums.
If you could please help me out, I would very much appreciate it. I’m a young mother—only 27—and I’ve tried all the techniques my mother-in-law has told me she used with her kids with no success. Can you offer any suggestions?
First, my heart goes out to you, because I can hear the stress in your voice. Second, the main piece of advice I want you to absorb is this: You are teaching your son how to treat you. Although this advice is simple and straightforward, the reality is that it is very difficult to fully understand. I want to share it with you, however, because once that “clicks” with you, my guess is that you will follow through more with your consistency with him.
Since I only know what you wrote in your question, I obviously cannot suggest specifically what to take away from him, but I can say that for his age, it’s appropriate to take away whatever it is for one day. In other words, if he climbs on the entertainment system, then you might take away television for the rest of that day (for example—it doesn’t have to be television, it can be whatever you decide). You don’t have to implement a consequence out of anger in any way. Instead, if he attempts to climb on the entertainment system, you look at him and say firmly and clearly, “Entertainment systems are not for climbing on. If you choose to climb on that, you will lose television for the rest of today.” And then—and this is most important—the second that he begins to climb on the entertainment system, you say, “No.”—(then redirect him away from it)—”Now you’ve lost television for the rest of the day.”
When he cries and is upset, as he most likely will do, it’s important to be on a knee in front of him at eye level and say something along the lines of, “I can see that you’re really upset with yourself for choosing to not listen, but I’m not mad at you in any way. I love you, and it’s my job to keep you safe and teach you things, and I want you to learn that it’s not okay to climb on the entertainment system.”
You definitely don’t want to speak too much, because he’s so young, but the general idea is to redirect him, give him a consequence, and then follow through with that consequence no matter what (that’s why I recommend not taking anything away at that age for more than one day). It’s also why I stress not yelling or acting out of anger, because when parents act from a place of anger, they usually feel guilty later on, and then eventually give in – which only teaches their children that their word does not mean what it says. I also will add that I never took away my daughter’s favorite sleeping toy. I believe children at that age need to feel safe at night, so her favorite sleeping stuffed animal was always off the table for me to take away. However, the very next favorite toy, regardless of whatever it was, was fair game. So if your son plays with technology, I would definitely recommend taking that away for a day the moment he chooses to not listen.
Remember also the philosophy that I work to convey in my book, Zen Parent, Zen Child: If you want him to be calm, you have to lead by example. This certainly isn’t always easy to do, which is why I recommend you taking time to take care of yourself (i.e., exercise, meditation, etc.).
You are always teaching your son, and he is always learning more by watching you than he is by listening to you. If he learns that what you say goes and that you will follow through with whatever you say, he will learn very quickly to listen when you speak.
I hope this helps!
Sending you all the best and much peace,
*Names have been changed for privacy.