Don’t lick the dishes, and other models of good behavior

April 12, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

I stood by the kitchen sink, my hands on my hips.

“You know better than that,” I said to the older of the two. She ducked her head to avoid my stare, feigning innocence.

I ignored her feeble attempt to be cute and pressed on.

“She’s little, and you should be a role model,” I said sternly. I may have even wagged my finger.

For a brief moment, I expected the older, who is 4 years, to exhibit manners that the younger, who is 3 months, could not. It made no sense, of course, me standing in the kitchen, lecturing two dogs about why one should not lick dirty dishes in the open dishwasher.

It reminded me of encounters with my daughters when they were little – not the dish-licking part; the expectations part. The older was almost 2 when her sister was born, and I sometimes had to remind myself that being older didn’t translate into an ability to understand adult rationale. At 3 or 4, she was as likely as any other preschooler to have meltdowns or tantrums, to be afraid of the dark or have separation issues. Her status as “older sister” did not negate the fact that her behavior was developmentally appropriate – even if it could be frustrating.

We do that, sometimes – have expectations of our kids because, in fleeting moments, they show maturity beyond their years. My eldest was very verbal from a young age, so there were times when I slipped into thinking that her ability to talk meant she could reason. That wasn’t the case, and I still had to address behavioral issues in an age-appropriate manner.

Preschoolers are eager to learn. They want to touch, taste, smell, hear, see and test things – particularly you (hence the frustration). You can tap into their innate desire to learn by teaching rules that will help get their behavior on track.

Wipe out whining.

It can be tempting to give in to a whining request in order to stop the grating sound of your child’s high-pitched pleas. Rewarding whining will backfire, however. By responding to whining with what your child views as success (getting what they want) gives them a new weapon of choice for future desires. Rather than cave to the whining, ask your child to talk to you in a regular voice. Praise the effort when it warrants it.

If the whining continues, consider what else is happening. Is there a new sibling in the house? Tension about a job change? A pending move? Sometimes whining is a signal for something else – such as a child’s need for attention or one-on-one time with you.

Combat non-compliance.

Preschoolers have a growing sense of independence, and they’re not afraid to show it. They may refuse to eat, dress, go to bed – or do anything in between. Provide opportunities for your child to make choices. For example, let a child choose between two outfits or two snacks. Make sure the choices are both acceptable to you. Your child feels empowered, and you have minimized the opportunity for battle.

Manners matter.

Appropriate social behavior is learned behavior. Preschoolers are receptive to learning rules, so it’s a good time to teach them to say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me” and “may I.” Children model the behavior of adults around them, so be sure to let them hear you say these things as part of your daily interactions. Again, praise effort and you’ll be more likely to see the lessons stick. Praise is powerful that way.

Your child’s behaviors are a normal part of preschool development, but with some patience and effort, you can nip negative behavior in the bud.

And if you have dogs, don’t expect them to say, “May we please lick the dishes?” anytime soon. I assure you it won’t work.


WebMD: Preschooler Emotional Development

National Library of Medicine Preschooler development

Washington Parent: Annoying But Age-Appropriate: Coping with Preschool Behavior

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is mom to two teen-age daughters and an 8-year-old son, all of whom are very polite. She has no expectations that the dogs will follow suit.

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