Four-year-olds run on praise and approval

This is an archived article that was published on in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dear Carolyn • I have a 4-year-old, and our downfall is getting out the door in the morning. It is just so hard to get her moving, and she doesn't care if we are late for school and work; it's not a motivator for her. I am not a big fan of rewards like a star chart/toy if you behave. I have tried to impress on her that we need to work together, and if you don't help out, privileges will be taken away. Some days it works, other days it doesn't. Is this just the price of being a busy family with too little time in the morning?

Morning Rush

Dear Morning Rush • You're not a fan of rewards, so you use punishment (privilege-docking) instead? That doesn't make sense to me, because I can't imagine you'd want others to punish you for mistakes instead of giving positive reinforcement (PR) for your accomplishments — and you're an adult. A 4-year-old runs on and needs that approval so much more. It can't be hollow praise, of course but it can include motivational PR and tangible rewards more meaningful than a sticker. It would take me a long time to type out the various approaches people use effectively, so I'll suggest that you do one of two things: (1) Read a how-to book on working at a child's level versus your own. The two recommended most often, in my experience, are How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (Faber, Mazlish) and Parenting With Love and Logic (Cline, Fay). (2) Take a few hours of personal leave and sit in on your daughter's school day. Teachers of young kids have some basic, remarkably effective techniques to keep the room from descending into chaos, and learning from the teacher will have the added benefit of bringing consistency to home and school. You need to get to work on time, yes, and mornings are difficult for most parents of small kids. However, it's hard to think of a 4-year-old who would care about getting anywhere "on time"; time is conceptual and small children are ruthless pragmatists. I suspect you'll find a solution when you learn to speak her language, instead of wanting/needing/expecting her to learn yours.

Carolyn Hax's column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.