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Ask Teacher Lisa: How to support a 3 year old who can’t make up her mind

Dear Teacher Lisa,

Our 3 year old has been especially challenging us lately, and it seems to come up every day in the most routine activities. For example, when it’s time to eat we have an agreement that she must wash her hands before a meal. We always give her the choice to have either mom or dad help her, and after seemingly making her choice, she’ll start to play what we call the “yes/no” game by saying “yes, I’m ready,” then running away and saying “no, I’m not” as soon as we come into the bathroom to help her. This back and forth usually ends in tears after we decide to take a break from the drama and try to walk away (at which point she says “yes, yes I DO want to wash my hands!”).

We recognize that she is going through a lot developmentally and that she is probably already hungry (and maybe even tired) by the time we need to wash hands to eat, but we feel like we’re at a loss as to how to help her through these daily activities without all of us losing our minds. What can we do to give her choices without it turning into a poorly played game?

Sincerely,
Tired of Playing the Yes/No Game


Dear Tired,

So, here’s the thing. A disregulated 3-year-old is not physically capable of making decisions. So rather than viewing this as a “yes/no game,” I would view it as a situation in which your child is incapable of making decisions, and she needs you to make the decision for her based on what you feel best meets her needs in the moment. And if it doesn’t matter for her needs, then decide based on your needs.

For example, if she DOES need her diaper changed, BUT is saying “yes/no” about Daddy doing it, then you decide who does it and stick to it. She may cry the first few times you try this, but often kids will feel better in the security of knowing you are going to help them decide and take care of them if they can’t handle things on their own. 

I view this similarly to when parents are departing from school, assuming the child feels secure in their school environment. Kids may have a lot of feelings about this separation, but will ultimately benefit if you make the call and they know it’s decided and they can move on to the next thing…even if they have some feelings to process along the way. The certainty of you deciding helps and instills confidence that the situation is under control. You don’t want to get into a yo-yo pattern, because it might just become habit. 

Choices are great for during the day when she is not tired and it is something that she can truly choose–apple or orange? But the big stuff should be decided by the parents, and the little stuff too if it’s a time when you know she will be tired (or you can lay it out in advance to give her a choice at a time when she is more regulated–i.e. Tonight do you want to use the new bubble gum toothpaste or the old mint? Let’s lay it out this morning, so it will be ready for us tonight!).

A visual cue can be immensely helpful to a child who needs support in processing the expectations of the day, and one simple way to create this is through a daily “calendar” where you can stick images on to outline the activities for the day. This is a great opportunity as well to offer choices – find a moment when she is well-rested and fed, and then let her pick one or two of the big activities for the coming day.

Another possibility is that she is clinging to the yes/no in these moments, because she has a need for some power and control. I would find other ways to give her this during the day. Maybe you do play a “yes/no game” during the day that is very silly like “Yes, I should put this stinky sock on my head??” That way she has opportunities for power in play, but when it comes to the routine there is a structure that is adhered to. And then you can all focus on playing the games that are a little more fun for everyone :).

Warmly,
Teacher Lisa

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Ask Teacher Lisa: When your son loves dresses and other expressions of gender identity

“Dear Teacher Lisa,

My 3 year old son is fascinated by makeup and swirly dresses, as I’m sure many 3 year old boys and girls are. I fully support his play and have even bought a dress and tutu for his dress-up area, but I find my parents and husband are more hesitant to encourage this kind of play as they are afraid he’s going to get bullied either now or as he gets older for playing with “girls’ things.”

Recognizing that we don’t live in a world that is always tolerant of those who behave or express themselves differently, do you have any advice as to how I can acknowledge their concerns, while still teaching our son that it’s more than ok to explore what’s most fun for him, no matter how sparkly it might be?

Thank you,

Mom making peace with sequins”

Dear Mom Making Peace with Sequins,

Thank you for your thoughtful message. I believe that following your own child’s lead is always the key. If a child shows no interest in playing with make up or wearing sparkly dresses, we don’t need to push them to do so. If they are drawn to this, then by all means, support that exploration. Dressing up in all its forms is a very alluring childhood activity and doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about a child’s gender identity. Allowing our children to explore different sides of themselves and different interests helps them figure out preferences, feel confident that they are not defined by their clothing or external appearance alone, and secure that we love them no matter what.

Childhood is a time of exploration and curiosity. Parental resistance to allowing them to explore will only serve to create a power struggle that can lead on the one hand to a lack of self-confidence and submission to our control, or on the other hand anger and defiance. When we allow a child to explore freely, we are also teaching them to be accepting of others who do the same. On the flip side, if a child has been told at home that they cannot have long hair because they are a boy, when they see a boy with long hair in the community, they may tell this child that is wrong.

A 2-3 year old will not be able to engage in deep philosophical discussion with you about why or why not they may wear sparkles. I encourage you to let your child be free, and surround yourself with people whom you feel will be supportive. If your family members are skeptical and concerned, I don’t recommend arguing with them. Engage with them with empathy for why they feel the way they do. See if you can come to a place of compromise that allows your child time and space to explore, but also helps other family members feel comfortable. Let them know it is important to you that your child doesn’t feel any stigma or shame around their curiosity. You are building your own family values during these early years of your child’s life—it’s natural that you and your partner or extended families bring different perspectives and will need to discuss those to make joint decisions. You may have limits about wearing shoes or pajamas when going out for example, and if you or other family members are worried about public perception, you could set similar limits around sparkly attire, perhaps designating it as a “home outfit.” If by chance you were to encounter someone outside the family who questioned your child’s right to wear sparkles, you might playfully narrate for your child, “In our home, we decide for ourselves what we feel like wearing. Some days we feel sparkly!”

As your child ages, you will be able to talk to them more thoughtfully about what different people think about who wears what and why and ask their opinion. If our aim is to teach our children to think critically and be accepting of others, what better way than to start to break down why Grandma might feel the way she does about boys and make-up or why Daddy might be worried about bullying? Raising children who feel free to explore but can also understand the perspectives of others might just make the world a little more sparkly.

Shine on,

Teacher Lisa

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