Your Little Emperor

tic tac toe 1777936 640Parents and teachers of four-year-old children:  do not despair! Your child's attempts to rule the roost are normal! predictable! and part of learning to be a healthy adult!

Four-year-old children, whether boys or girls, all become Little Emperors -- rulers of their known universes.

They are in a stage of learning about rules, laws, fairness, and justice. You will recognize this stage when it arrives, by the more regular occurrence of children's statements in the form of rules or requirements. You, dear adult, "must" do many things now--cut the crusts from bread, position the furniture just right, keep all portions equal in size, fold the clothes just so, tell girls they can't play doctor but only nurse....

There are many, many rules a Little Emperor may wish to impose. There will also be many times when your offer of a couple of choices for something is countered with a third, child-originated option. You offer A and B options for lunch but a four-year-old child asks, "How about C?"

Why has your child suddenly become so directive, so "in charge?" And how do you help your child not become a bully with all these rules and standards for everyone else? Is it okay for him to get what he wants? Should she get to make rules for you?

The Childhood Treasure of Negotiation is the one children are mining at this age. They are learning how to get what they want from others, in a world where they are still learning the ropes of relationships. If your child has developed healthy capacities for Trust, Independence, and Faith at ages one, two, and three, then, she is well-prepared for this first foray into "working it out with others."

One of the strategies children use at this age is "thinking inside the box." Think of the choices you offer your child as coming from inside a box, with the sides of the box as your broad guidelines for the choices you offer. For example, at breakfast, a parent might offer a four-year-old either oat flakes with a banana on top or scrambled eggs with grilled tomato slices. The sides of your box might include: balanced nutrition, ingredients available, foods he likes, can fix it in less than 10 minutes, and will fill him up for four hours until preschool snack time. Great! If you are aware of the sides of your own boxes, when you offer your child choices, you are WAY ahead in the parent or teacher game, compared to most. 

Your advantage is that you can help a Little Emperor learn to negotiate. At some point, she will surely respond to your choices with a third option. Her goal, which she could not tell you, is to pick another choice that fits inside your box. Though the sides of your box may not be visible to her, she is learning to identify what other people want. She is learning from you that you want balanced nutrition and the rest of she wants to learn how to get what SHE wants, inside your box. 

So, this child asks for a fried egg on toast with a banana. Let's see how he did, getting inside your box. Balanced nutrition-check; ingredients available-two are the same ingredients you offered and he's added toast because he knows there is bread in the house-check; obviously he likes it-check; 10-min fix-check; filling for four hours-check. He hit all your markers! 

So why wouldn't you say yes? Help a child develop reasonable expectations for the use of negotiation to get what she wants -- by allowing her to negotiate! Whenever you can, let four-year-old children discover the power of negotiating by helping them learn about your "box." In this example, you might reply to your child's option, "Sure! You can have that breakfast. I wanted you to have something healthy that I could fix quickly with what we have on hand. Good job of choosing something that was like that!"

Each of us needs to get at least some of what we want, at least some of the time. Negotiation is a skill useful in business, government, and all adult relationships. Four is the age when we learn negotiation. Little Emperors are a bit rough around their diplomatic edges, but we adults can help them smooth out their delivery, over time. 

Go on, grown ups! Get out there and negotiate with those Little Emperors!


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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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