“Put your coat on, OK?”

Three ways to guide your young child’s behavior without resorting to “drama.”


Saying "We pet the cat slowly with an open hand" helps make your expectations clear. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Why don’t our children do what we ask them to do? Most of the time, this is a mystery to us. Luckily, we do not have to know why in order to encourage more agreeable behavior from our kids. Here are three strategies Michigan State University Extension recommends trying.

Avoid confusing statements. When you are setting limits make your expectations clear, in brief sentences and with simple wording. For example, you are ready to take your child outdoors. You have your coat on. You say, “It is time to put your coat on.” Or, your child is shouting inside the house and you want quiet. You say, “We use a quiet voice inside the house.” Your child loves the cat and wants to pick it up and squeeze it. You say, “We pet the cat slowly with an open hand.” In all of these statements, you are making it clear what it is that you expect your child to do. You are phrasing in the positive, rather than the negative. If you only use the negative phrases, such as “Don’t squeeze the cat,” then your child may not understand the proper way to treat a cat. We know that, sometimes, some children take advantage of these types of statements. You tell your child not to run in the house, so they start to skip. What you really meant was “walk in the house,” but that is not what you said.

You may not always get cooperation with a simple statement. Another strategy to try is to offer choices when you want to help your child make the right decision. This can be tricky, so keep these hints in mind.

  • Avoid ending the sentence with “OK” such as, “We pet the cat slowly with an open hand, OK?” What if your child says “No, it’s not OK. I pet the cat by squeezing it hard.” Your child does not really have a choice about the way to pet the cat.
  • Offer choices that you feel you can live with. You must be ready to endorse and follow through with any of the choices you offer. Otherwise, the child will be able to manipulate you. If you are going to back down from a choice, don’t offer it. For example, don’t offer “You can use a quiet voice inside the house or you can go outdoors” if you do not plan on letting the child go outdoors to shout.
  • Offer realistic choices, such as “You can pet the cat slowly or you can squeeze your stuffed cat.” If the child really feels like squeezing, he can choose the latter. But, if he wants to pet the cat, he’ll have to do it your way.

When a child refuses to comply with expectations and does not make a choice, consider letting the child experience the natural consequences of their actions. For example, if your child refuses to put on a coat, then the natural consequence might be that she will get cold or wet. This often feels uncomfortable. You can point this out, but if your child still refuses the coat, then she will have to feel uncomfortable for a while until she either puts on the coat or goes indoors.

Of course, there are some situations in which your child must comply with your expectations for safety reasons. If it is not a question of discomfort, but of serious injury, choosing to live with the consequences is not an option. You can still offer choices, however. The trick is to think of what your child is really wanting or needing to do. In the case of the cat, most children don’t want to hurt an animal; they just want to express their intense feelings of love and joy. While you cannot permit your child to hurt the cat, you can still give him an option that allows him to act out his intense feelings with a similar but inanimate object.

It can seem really simple on paper but difficult to do in real life. But, you know your child well. You can put yourself in his or her place, and sort out their intentions from your long experience of observing their behavior. You may even recall your own feelings and intentions as a child. This is how you figure out how the child may be looking at a situation, which will help explain why they do what they do. Hey, we may have just solved this mystery!

For lots of other articles on the mysteries of early childhood development and behavior, visit the early childhood development page on the MSU Extension website.

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