When Your Preschooler Won’t Cooperate: Big Kid + Big Privileges = Big Responsibilities

Awhile back, before I published my post about letting Kimmie watch movies, I sent a draft of it to my friend Liz, who blogs over at Everyday Ecologist. In a subsequent phone conference, as we chatted about the slippery slope of kids and screen time, Liz said something to the effect of, “I can’t wait to read your follow-up post on this.”

Well, Liz, here you go.

As I write this, it’s a beautiful May day outside. After a too-long, harsher-than-usual winter in our neck of the woods, spring has finally sprung: the birds are singing, the flowers are in full bloom, the trees are at last bathed in the green of full foliage, the air is sticky with pollen, and the kids are all getting squirrelly. Meaning either they’re acting nutso, or they’re making every adult around them feel as if she is going nuts. Or both.

And that would include my darling four-year-old.

Once upon a time, Kimmie was a model of politeness in word and deed. She was always eager to “help” with jobs around the house, from cooking to laundry to yard work, to the point that our then-not-yet-two-year-old Essie was a pro at cleaning up toys and sweeping the kitchen floor, having learned these behaviors in part from her big sister. And one of Essie’s favorite phrases, “C’you pweese?” – as in, can you please fill my cup, can you please read me a story, or can you please get me some more food – she also learned from Kimmie.

Then, about a month ago, Big Sister began swapping out “Can you please?” for angry “Get me now!”s, and simultaneously refused – loudly and often – to help with anything we asked her to do around the house, from folding laundry to setting the table for supper.

When time-outs no longer work

Our child with a flair for the dramatic was suddenly having so many full-blown meltdowns each day that sending her to her room for a time-out was losing its effectiveness, and the hardware on her bedroom door was starting to come loose from all the times she’d slammed it shut in frustration.

Instead of being my helpful Big Girl, the only things Kimmie wanted to do were ride her tricycle and watch movies.

It got so bad that last week I called a conference with Kimmie’s preschool teacher, to ask if she’d noticed an uptick in rude, uncooperative behavior from Kimmie at school. She assured me that Kimmie continues to be a dear, sweet angel in the classroom.

I’ve heard of kids behaving well in front of others, only to “blow off steam” when around their parents, but this was the first time I’ve known Kimmie to save her bad behavior for us. The teacher suggested that this is just a new stage of Kimmie testing us, and encouraged us to be consistent and firm in responding to this latest challenge.

Have a family conference

I wish I could say that I’ve got it all figured out, after that sage advice, and I’ve got the problem solved once and for all time. But I can’t. What I can say is that the night after I met with Kimmie’s teacher, my husband and I held an impromptu conference at the dinner table. Kimmie was upstairs in her room, having been sent there after her latest refusal to set the dinner table precipitated yet another meltdown. When she was finally calm enough to rejoin us, we had the first of several chats with her about Big-Girl Privileges and Big-Girl Responsibilities.

Put privileges on vacation

As we explained to Kimmie, everyone in our household has jobs to do, even her younger sister. The bigger we get, the more privileges we get – pause to discuss what “privileges” means – like, for Kimmie, riding her bike or watching movies. But along with more privileges come more responsibilities; pause to define “responsibilities.”

And until Kimmie was ready to start acting like a big girl again, by replacing her rude tone and little-girl tantrums with polite words and cooperative actions on a regular basis, we were taking away some of her big-girl privileges – bike riding and movie watching – indefinitely. (This one I struggled to define in a way that registered understanding on Kimmie’s face, so Daddy stepped in: “That means a very, very, VERY long time.” She got that.)

Stand your ground and follow through

The next day, come Essie’s naptime, I had three batches of laundry to wash and six to fold. (Alas, I don’t even come close to Crystal Paine’s Time Management 101 tip of doing a batch of laundry, start to finish, each day.) And Kimmie wanted me to play a new game with her. I told her that I had laundry to deal with, asked her to please help me so I’d be done sooner, and assured her that if we had time left over after the laundry was done, then we could play the game.

While she did fold and put away a few things, Kimmie chose to hinder my efforts more than she helped them. Thus it wasn’t surprising, as I verbally connected the dots for her later, that we ran out of time to play her new game.

What worked best of all: Change things up!

The following day was Thursday – a day when Kimmie doesn’t have school, and when my husband had to leave the house extra-early for a meeting. As the time to wake the girls approached, I wondered how I could orchestrate the day so as to minimize the number of tantrums that erupted. I thought long and hard about all Kimmie’s pre-dinnertime meltdowns over setting the table, and wondered if the problem wasn’t the activity itself, but rather the timing (late in the day, when she was tired and hungry.)

So I decided to change things up, and see if that made a difference.

After breakfast, Kimmie and I spent a few minutes reviewing how the day before had gone. She’d helped some, but not enough to help me wind up my chores in time to play her new game with her.

I then asked her what she wanted to do that morning. Not surprisingly, she picked playing outside – it was a beautiful day – and I assured her that we could go outside as soon as we’d cleaned up the inside.

Cooperation = Reward

I’d already set Essie to work picking up toys in the living room, and I asked Kimmie if she could please help me clean up the kitchen. With the reward of going outside constantly in sight, and her reserves of cooperative behavior at their peak, she was at her most helpful in days. Not only did we get the dishwasher emptied, the dishes dried and put away, the dirties loaded in, the breakfast foods put away, the table in the breakfast nook cleared and readied for lunch, and a lot of random out-of-place items returned to their rightful homes; but Kimmie was happy to set the dining-room table for supper. Happy.

I even put five minutes on a timer, and challenged her to finish the task before it sounded. She had the job done with a minute to spare.

Ensuring cheerful cooperation from my eldest is still a work in progress, but at least I feel as if the progress is again moving forward. Meanwhile, the TV remains off, and Kimmie’s bike remains “on vacation,” hidden out of sight in the basement.

I just hope that Kimmie has re-mastered her household responsibilities in time to earn her big-girl privileges back before summer arrives.