The Case of the Uncooperative Child

Dear Wombat and Dingbat,

I have a daughter who has arrived at the early stages of the boundary-pushing age: she negotiates about *everything.* She makes herself late to school in the morning because of her other projects; she tries to delay her bedtime as long as possible, etc. etc. I am an uncomfortable authoritarian—the world would be so much easier if I could just explain, reflect back some emotional life, express my need, and she’d understand and respond well. Is there a perfect balance to strike? How do I figure out where it might lie, and how should I behave while figuring it out?  

—Frustrated Dad

Dear Frustrated,

Here’s something I’ve noticed. People have a really strong tendency to believe that “should” is a strong motivator. Whether it’s with adults or kids, you want to think that letting someone know what they should do, and why they should do it, pretty much translates into that thing getting done. And when there isn’t a strong pull the other direction, it sometimes works. But often it doesn’t. With people and dogs, it tends to sound like: “Fluffy is so stubborn. She knows what “come” means, and she’ll always do it when I’m in the kitchen with a treat in my hand. But when we get to the park and she finds the remains of an old burrito, she totally blows me off.”

An old burrito? Chicken, beef, or bean and cheese?

I don’t know. Does it matter?

It might.

Well, it doesn’t matter to me. That’s not what I’m talking about.

So you don’t care?

No, I really don’t.

There you go. Even you won’t do something as simple as tell me what kind of burrito we’re talking about if it isn’t your agenda.

Uh. Right. So the point is that our wanting someone else to do something isn’t necessarily as powerful a motivator as you might think. Even if you’re the dad. And because you’re a nice guy and you don’t want to have a punitive relationship with your daughter, you’re feeling kind of stuck.

Like melted cheese on a burrito wrapper.

Yes, Dingbat. You are also stuck. Let’s get back to Frustrated.

And his kid. I love kids.

Right. Anyway. There are a lot of things you might try, like managing the environment so that there are fewer attractive options available when something like school or bed needs to happen. But you also might want to think about the power of the Premack Principle.

Get your ducks in a row with the Pre-Quack Principle! HAHAHAHAHA!!!

Pre-Mack, not Pre-Quack. Stop interrupting.

Sorry. Tell us about the Premack Principle, oh Wise One.

Well, there’s fancier language for it, but basically it means that you can use something your learner wants to do as a reward for doing the thing you want them to do. It’s the old “You can have dessert after you eat your vegetables” principle.

I love vegetables. Can we have vegetables for dessert? Can we have vegetables and dessert?

Remember the interrupting?


So it might look like “If you can get your jammies on and teeth brushed by 8:00 then we will have time for reading before bed.” Or “I’d love for you to sing me that song as soon as you’re done with breakfast.” When they do the thing you want, they get to do the thing they want. You could try writing down a list of the things she is doing when you would rather she be doing something else. Figure out how you can control access to those things, and then make access to the things she finds fun contingent on her doing the things you need her to do. TV after homework. Play date after the room is clean. Whatever.

And then decide which things you are willing to negotiate about, because that is a good skill and everyone needs some sense of control in their life. And decide which things you are not willing to negotiate, and practice the phrase, “I’m sorry, this is not negotiable.” If she gets angry, you are always at liberty to walk away. If she continues arguing, I recommend vacuuming. It is very hard to argue over the sound of a vacuum.

Are you done?

I guess. Why?

I didn’t interrupt for the longest time. Can we have vegetables now?

You know you have to talk to The Human about that. She’s the only one who can open the refrigerator.

That is the source of her awesome powers.

Wiggles and Kisses,

Wombat and Dingbat

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2 thoughts on “The Case of the Uncooperative Child

  1. I look forward to much more of your wisdom Wombat and Dingbat! I hope veggies are in your near future!

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