Question: I have a 4 1/2 year old little girl who is starting to become defiant, untruthful, sneaky, and has done some hitting to myself and her father lately. We have never spanked her, and we always show her that hitting is very serious by consequencing her actions with removal of priviledges like TV or family time. I find her behavior very disheartening because it continues…she doesn’t seem to be learning from her mistakes. This morning I found her hiding in her room eating candy when she knew I wouldn’t have allowed it, she also told a couple of lies and used her fists to punch me when I removed a coveted toy as a consequence for lying. I’m not sure what to do…I’ve always prided myself in being a parent who follows through on discipline and has a well-behaved child to show for it. Now it feels like someone took away the sweet little girl I’ve lived with the past four years. Help!
Answer: Your sweet little girl is still there – she is just growing in ways that are sure to drive you and her father crazy! First, let me explain why she is doing what she is doing.
She has discovered that she can make choices that are different from the choices you want her to make. It was not very long ago that you could give her two choices and she would pick from those two. Now, she knows, in the strongest sense of the word, that her choices are limited only by her imagination. Who wouldn’t love all that new found power? The paradox is that she would not be happy for very long given full license to use that power. As we know, children need predictable boundaries to feel competent and secure. They “know” the rules and yet the enticement of the moment over-rides their better judgment.
Creative parenting is essential at this stage of parenthood. You must think two steps ahead of your daughter. Anticipate moments of defiance by heading her off at the pass. If you sense that she is enticed by something she cannot do, remind her of what she can do. She can have one piece of candy after dinner or she can help make her favorite color of Jell-O for snack. This is an age when it’s easy for parents to lose in a head-to-head power struggle. (I think your daughter’s hitting is the escalation of the power struggle – it is your daughter’s last resort to save her candy!) Practice thinking like a 4 year old! I know a mother of a 4 year old who serves her son 15 baby carrots to get him to eat 10 carrots. If she serves 10 baby carrots, he will only eat 5. Creative thinking will not lead to spoiling; it’s the practical equivalent of “choose your battles.”
Lying and sneaking are not moral issues at this age. Developmentally, your daughter can simultaneously believe contradictory ideas. For example, she can know the rule is “no food in the bedroom” and think “I need to find a place to eat this candy”. (It’s the same as thinking 10 out of 15 carrots is less than 10 out of 10 carrots.) If you find her “sneaking” the candy, restate the rule and let her “fix” the situation by taking the candy to a safe place till after dinner. (If she later forgets, you will build trust by remembering to give her the candy yourself, as promised.) If she refuses to comply, avoid the tug-of-war over the candy she is holding. Let her know that there will be no more candy in the house for the rest of the week. Again, just as she can hold illogical beliefs, she is hard pressed to rationally “let go” of one of the ideas. Avoid the power struggle but still set boundaries that you can enforce.
Lying is often “wishful” thinking. “I know what mommy wants me to say” and so I “wish” for that reality. First, never ask a question that forces her to lie in order to please you. Just state the behavior – “I see you have candy in your room�We need to put it in the kitchen until later.” Second, use these moments to clarify what is “pretend” and what is “real” (or true and false). This is very much the age of magical thinking (Santa Claus and Fairies). While we encourage children’s imagination, we must help them understand the differences in practical situations. If we truly understand how 4 year olds think, the conflicts do not seem as difficult. Your “sweet little girl” sounds great to me!
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.