Dear Miss Faith,
My 3.5yo son used to be very helpful, but lately when I ask him to do things, he deliberately “misunderstands.” For example, if I ask him to bring me my purse, he’ll look around and bring something else. If I try to correct him, he just laughs and brings me something else again. What’s going on?
My experience is that when kids do something “wrong” and laugh while they’re doing it, the vast majority of the time, they’re trying to ask for fun and connection. They’re just doing it in ineffective ways. This goes for the one-year-old who pulls at the lamp plug again and again, laughing as you try to correct her; this goes for the two-year-old who hits you and runs away laughing, and it goes for the three-year-olds who pretends to misunderstand what you’ve asked, and laughs about it. Then when you get annoyed with them or try to correct them they either ignore you, or they have a meltdown, right? That’s because they’re trying to ask for fun and connection, and we get mad. I’d be upset too if I asked my partner for fun and he responded by getting mad.
So, do we respond to the behavior, or do we respond to the request, no matter how annoyingly it’s made? My suggestion is to respond to the request, while also teaching them how to make the request in ways that you both can enjoy. Children are usually happy to ask for things in ways that we enjoy, as long as they are AS effective as negative behavior in getting our attention. The problem is that when we teach them to say, “Rough-house, please!” then when so politely we might be tempted to say, “Sure, in a little bit, honey.” But if they run up and hit us and run away, they’re sure to get a response RIGHT NOW. So if we want to nip that negative behavior in the bud, we need to 1) teach them how to ask for fun/attention/connection in a different way, and 2) be AS consistent in responding when they ask in the way we’ve taught them, as we are when they do the negative behavior.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. How do we go about this? With the one-year-old and the lamp cord, I would simply respond to the unspoken request. “Uh-oh, that cord needs to stay in the wall. It looks like you’re ready to play! Come here, you!” And I’d scoop that one-year-old up and swing her around, and move off to another part of the house. For the two-year-old who hits and runs away laughing, I might say, “Ouch, that hurts! You can say, ‘Rough-house, please!'” Depending on the kid, I might cup my hand around my ear and look at him expectantly, perhaps repeating it again. “You can say, ‘Rough-house, please.'” As soon as he does, I say, “Yes! I’m ready to rough-house, too!” and I pretend-tackle him, enveloping him in growl-y hugs. The next time, I correct him again. And again. And when he finally comes up to me and says, “Rough-house!” on his own, I celebrate and make sure that I respond appropriately. I work on responding positively to his requests as much as I can, until the behavior has shifted for good. Of course, sometimes I really can’t rough-house on demand, but in those times I remember that what he’s really asking for is fun and connection, so I respond to THAT, even if it’s not by rough-housing.
And what about for that three-year-old who deliberately misunderstands your requests? How can you teach him to ask for fun in ways that are connecting and not annoying? And what type of fun is he looking for? You might try this: You ask him to bring you your purse. He looks around, spots your hat, and brings that over instead, laughing. You have a couple of options at this point. You can try the “skip-to-the-end” method: say, “Oh-ho, it looks like you want to play! OK! Well, bring me my purse first, and THEN we can play.” He may go for it, and he may not. If he does, then as soon as he brings your purse, do something fun and funny with him: Movement fun is often appreciated, or you could come up with an impromptu game: maybe put your hand in your purse and say, “Guess what’s in my hand?” He guesses, and you pull it out. You could do this three or four or five times. Anyhow, you want to do something fun and connecting immediately after he does what you ask him to.