When my sonwas 4, I asked him to get his jacket because we were going to the store. He looked at me with wide eyes and nodded. Five minutes later, I had keys in hand, but no Patrick. I finally found him sitting with his 2-year-old brother, behind the couch, shellacking the wall with a can of cooking spray. Although 3- and 4-year-olds are physically able to do a lot of things (like snag the cooking spray off the kitchen counter), their focus and attention span aren't fully developed. Preschoolers are still little kids, and they need your patience as they tackle new challenges like following directions. Fortunately, there are several ways you can maximize your child's ability to listen—and minimize your frustration.
Offer assistance. If your preschooler doesn't follow your directions, he's not trying to be defiant—he probably just needs assistance, says Kyle Pruett, M.D., professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and advisor for The Goddard School. "Your child may desperately want to follow your instructions and do it on his own, but he doesn't have the necessary skills. So instead of failing at the task, he won't do it at all." If you're asking him to put on his sneakers, but he wanders off, don't assume he's ignoring you. "Get down on his level, make eye contact, and ask what he's having trouble with," says Dr. Pruett. "Eight times out of ten, he'll be able to tell you." Maybe he hasn't learned how to fasten his sneakers. Take time to show him how to loosen the straps to put them on and then line up the Velcro so they stay secure when he stands up. To ease the pressure, practice when you're not about to leave the house. Next time, things will go smoothly.
Show the way. Don't be surprised if you announce, "Time to wash your hands!" and your preschooler plops in front of the television—or outright refuses. Try leading by example. Have her pull her stool up to the sink while you stand beside her and wash your hands too. "It's more fun when she doesn't have to do it alone," says Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., a psychologist in Houston. You're modeling how to stick to a routine (always washing up before a meal) and stay on task. Eventually, this will become a habit and you may not have to remind her at all.
Make sense. It may seem like your child never tires of asking "Why?" even though you may feel a bit tired of answering. But sometimes a thoughtful explanation is just what your child needs in order to accept and follow directions. If he doesn't want to buckle his seat belt, for instance, spell out why it's important, says Dr. Pruett. Tell him that the reason you need him to wear it is to keep him safe and it's the law. Learning the logic behind your request will help him appreciate that it serves a distinct purpose (like safety!).
Monitor yourself. If your child still seems to resist your instructions, it's worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate how you deliver them. "The best way to get anyone to listen is to speak with a respectful tone of voice," says Suzanne Kaseta, M.D., a pediatrician at Washingtonville Pediatrics, in Washingtonville, New York. If you catch yourself standing with your hands on your hips and barking commands, switch to a more neutral tone and a less confrontational posture. Your preschooler will be more likely to respond. Instead of saying "No running in the house!" try "Walk, please." You'll be more successful with a positive approach.
Time transitions. Sometimes the issue is not your child's willingness to listen but how much he's enjoying what he's already doing, says Dr. Pruett. "It's important to establish routines so he knows what's coming next." If he always takes a bath before storytime, remind your child that he can only spend ten minutes in the tub if he wants to read his favorite book. Try using warnings like, "Hey, we need to get out and dry off in five minutes." You can even give a second alert about two minutes before he should start picking up his bath toys. When the time comes to stop playing, it won't seem as abrupt and he'll be in the right mind-set to cooperate.