One powerful tool to get toddlers or preschoolers to do things with more and ease is to use “relationship before request” – connect with your child for a few minutes before you ask them to do something. Not only does this make your day go smoother, it also lets you build warmth and strengthen bonding.
Need to get your child to:
- come upstairs to bed
- load the car
- go potty
- come eat their dinner
- get dressed
- clean up their toys
with a bit more ease?
Here are a few ways to implement “relationship before request”:
1. Pause and Observe: Watch Your Child Quietly
Before you say, “Load the car!” pause for a moment and notice what your child is engaged in. Are they playing restaurant with toy food? Zooming cars? Counting the pennies in their piggy bank? Watch them for a second and simply notice how they are deep in the middle of something.
2. Comment/Ask: “I See You Are . . .” or “Can You Tell Me About What You’re Doing?”
Acknowledge what kids are doing. “Oh, I see you are making a book of drawings for Grandma” or “I see you are putting together the bridge on your train set. You’re pulling that long train all around the tracks!” or “I see you’re making something with those ribbons.” Or “Can you tell me about what you’re doing/playing?”
3. Ask: “May I Join You?”
When kids are engrossed in what they’re doing, ask, “May I join you?” and then follow the child’s lead (let them be in charge). For five minutes (or however much time you have), do a puzzle with them, play catch, build with blocks, string beads on a necklace together, color beside them, look at books side by side, help line up their stuffed animals, run in circles with them, or engage in whatever they are already doing. Some kids may be open to or even delighted to have you participate, while others may prefer that you watch. They’ll be way more likely to go brush their teeth or clean up their books after you’ve joined them in play for a just few minutes.
4. Give Ownership
Kids love a sense of power and control. By giving them a bit of ownership in the process (of doing the next thing), they are more likely to cooperate.
Sample questions to offer ownership:
- What special place do you want to put that (until the morning, until we get back, etc.)? When a child is playing with something right before bed or leaving to go somewhere, having them find a special home for it where they know it will be later can help.
- Do you want to [do the next thing] now or in 5 minutes? Ask them to reiterate to you what they will do when the timer goes off. Set the timer.
- How do you want to get there? Do you want a piggyback ride or do you want to skip there together?
- Are you at a stopping point? Imagine if you were 134 screws into putting together a 542-screw Ikea dresser, and someone insisted you “leave it that very second!” without putting so much as a bookmark in the 34-page direction leaflet. Sometimes a child might be engaged in building a Lego design, constructing a dollhouse play scenario, or sorting seashells with the same kind of intensity.
- Can you be in charge of X? “Can you be in charge of picking the books we’ll read tonight?” “Can you be in charge of passing out the raisins in the car?” Giving kids a special job can reduce resistance and build enthusiasm.
5. Share the Schedule with Kids Ahead of Time
Let kids know the day’s plan in advance. “We’re going to the library, then swimming lessons, then we’re stopping at the park for an hour.” Write a checklist for them (or a picture checklist if they can’t read yet), and ask them to check things off as you do them. Ask them to help you prepare or pack special things for an activity. This gives them a sense of control, safety, and ownership, rather than having them ask, “Where are we going, anyway?” once you’re already driving. Also consider these additional tips for building kids’ enthusiasm about the day’s events.
Spending just 5 minutes connecting before you ask kids to do something will help your child complete the next thing with more cooperation and way less resistance. It’s also a form of “sensitive caregiving,” which, research suggests, is a strong predictor of an individual’s social competence and academic achievement, not only during childhood and adolescence, but all the way through to adulthood (Science Daily, 2014).
Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD is a counselor in Chicago’s western suburbs. www.erinleyba.comShe is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Ideas for Overcoming Fatigue, Stress, and Guilt – and Building a Life You Love (New World Library), now available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indie Bound. Join her on Facebook or sign up to get free articles on parenting with mindfulness and joy.
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