How to talk to preschoolers (and get what you want)

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A parent trying to get a cranky preschooler to cooperate with a routine task (such as getting ready to leave the house) can be likened to a rodeo clown chasing around a bucking bronco.

Interacting with preschoolers requires strategy. You can’t just go in there and wing it. You need to prepare for this as if it were a sales presentation to your biggest client. You’ve got to choose your words carefully and use jargon that will appeal to them. Your challenge is to get them to buy in to your plan, but still make it seem as if it’s all about them.

Essentially, you’ve got to be entirely in charge but keep the other person from realizing it. To achieve this, you’ve got to be masterful in what you say and how you say it. Based on my experience, here are 3 key principles for talking to preschoolers:

 

  1. Tone matters.

First lesson: don’t end sentences in a questioning way with the word “okay”. For example: “When Paw Patrol is over, we’re putting on your shoes, okay?”

You might be using “okay?” in place of “do you understand what I’m saying?” but it comes across as if you’re seeking their approval of this plan. They’re going to hear “okay?” as in “is this okay with you?” or “click OK if you want to continue.” Because of this, they may perceive that they have some say in the matter (which, if you have a busy schedule like everyone else on the planet, they probably don’t).

That’s the thing with preschoolers – they can’t have a say, because if they did, the whole day would be spent climbing up slides the wrong way and eating popsicles for every meal. Any input they have is purely an illusion, meticulously engineered by you. The time-honoured tactic of “Would you like to wear the princess hat or the Hello Kitty one?” is a classic example.

So, avoid asking. It’s not optional to put on shoes to leave the house. It has to happen. So don’t ask him “would you like to put on your shoes now?” Spoiler alert: he doesn’t want to. And, it’s actually unfair to his 3-year-old brain to suggest that he might have a choice.

 

  1. Phrasing matters.

With preschoolers, I like to use the “royal we,” as in “We’re going to put on your pyjamas now” rather than “You’re going to.” It sounds less bossy and implies that we’re all on the same team here.

In my experience, the best phrases to use with preschoolers are “let’s” and “it’s time to.” They’re friendly but firm, and they don’t leave a lot of room for negotiation. Instead of asking “Do you need to have a pee?” take them by the hand and announce “Let’s go have a pee.” Replace the wishy-washy “I think we’d better get going” with an assertive “It’s time to go.” It may seem subtle, but it makes a world of difference.

 

  1. Timing matters.

In a transition time, when your child is going to have to stop doing one thing and start doing another, try to allow enough time to accommodate his or her pace. You know if your kid is a hare or a tortoise, so be realistic and plan accordingly.

I’m a believer in giving time warnings – a five-minute warning, followed by a two-minute warning, and then it’s go time. An insider’s tip: I suggest keeping the time frame accurate, especially if your child (like mine) has an affinity for numbers and a clear view of a digital clock.

When you’re trying to leave the house or get kids to bed or do anything that is time-sensitive, don’t lose precious minutes in needless debate. Preschoolers are notorious for inciting circular conversations that question everything and lead nowhere. If discussion must occur, do it while you’re in motion. I know you want to honour your child’s feelings and let her feel heard, but if you can do that while locating two mittens that match, it’s way more efficient. Explain the rationale for the winter jacket as you’re zipping it up, rather than getting into a lengthy Q&A session about how the seasons are changing. Talking out every little detail will eat away at your time and add to your stress. One of my go-to lines is: “I cannot answer any more questions until you are buckled into your car seat/tucked in to bed/sitting at the table/etc.”

 

At this age, any setback (no matter how small) can turn a docile calf into a raging bull, so try to keep your wits about you. If you speak calmly and confidently, your little one will be more likely to follow your lead. Show him that you have a plan and you know what you’re doing – in other words, that it’s not your first rodeo.

Picture of Kristi York

Author: Kristi York

Kristi York is a freelance writer and mom of two sports-loving boys. She is a regular contributor to ParentsCanada magazine, Running Room magazine, and the ParticipACTION website.

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