When they think of their lovable offspring, parents don't normally conjure up images of power-mad despots. But for many families, a child's preschool years are marked by power struggles. Between the ages of 3 and 5, "kids are beginning to figure out how much they're capable of," says Susan Warford, coordinator of the Child Development Center at the University of Rhode Island. "Things can get a little messy when children are experimenting with control. Once they get a little, they want it all."
A child's newfound understanding of cause and effect often leads to a period of testing limits (and parents' patience) at every step. Young control freaks try a range of tactics, from passivity to tears, charm to brute force, in their efforts to exert influence over their world.How should parents deal with these power plays? Surprisingly, a very effective strategy is to give a child room to make decisions, at least within reason. "Kids need decisionmaking practice," says Warford. "A child who has some power knows that the adults in his life respect him." In fact, a preschooler is ready to make plenty of choices for himself, such as whether to put on his shoes in his room or by the front door or which cup to drink from at lunchtime. If something makes little difference to a parent but is important to the child, Warford says, back off and let him decide.
Be careful, however, about letting a child think that getting his way is a birthright. For one thing, that attitude won't win him any popularity contests. "When preschoolers get together, they're all feeling a need for control," says Warford. "Kids have to learn how to compromise and work things out."
Even more important, preschoolers cannot - or should not - make certain decisions for themselves. "Children need limits, and indulging them can lead to big problems down the road," warns Dr. Richard Solomon, director of behavioral and child development services at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. "Parents are the `executives' in the family, and they get the final say."
When it comes to a child's health, safety and behavior, parents need to lay down the law and enforce it consistently, Solomon says, because "children catch on quickly when parents make a rule and don't enforce it." Take bedtime: The announcement that it's time to hit the sack leads to a request for a snack. Then a story. Then a drink.
Half an hour later, Mom and Dad are at their wits' end, and Junior winds up being carried, kicking and screaming, to his room.
Such temper flare-ups are inevitable for kids this age, who become frustrated when they realize that they can only control some things, some of the time. Although it's healthy for children to express that frustration, parents shouldn't react in kind. Instead, they can help defuse a heated situation by telling their child that they'll talk about what's upsetting him as soon as he settles down.
It's important to recognize, too, that in order to learn how to make good decisions, kids need the freedom to make a few bad ones. "A lot of conflict comes about because adults are afraid of giving up control," Warford says. "But the best way to create adults who are independent thinkers, who are problem solvers and decisionmakers, is by letting them practice as they are growing up."