Demanding and Whiny 4-year-old

Dear Miss Faith,
My son makes demands almost every time he talks. If I ask him to talk nice or say it nicely, he shouts out please. Then I say, please ask the whole thing in a nice voice. This gets him really upset and he proceeds to scream and cry.  I don’t give him what he wants until he says it nice but usually it’s when he’s so distraught and crying.  Ugh. Not a good cycle.

Dear Mama,
I’m right there with you–I have a  demanding 4-year-old at my house, too!  The biggest thing you can do is to remember that children learn through imitation. So rather than saying, “Say the whole thing again, with please,” try this: he says, “No!  I want the RED cup!”  You say, in the exact tone of voice you want him to use, “May I have the red cup please, Mommy?”  Then you pause and look at him. Ninety percent of the time children will repeat what you said, in the exact tone of voice you used.  This will solve the issue of him yelling please, and cuts right to him doing what you want him to do.  If he does imitate you, respond as if he had said it that way all on his own.

If you say the phrase and he doesn’t imitate you, be a little more explicit, but still end with the phrase for him to imitate: “You can say, ‘May I have the red cup please, Mommy?'”  Don’t expect him to be able to formulate this on his own for quite awhile, even if you think he *should* be able to at age four.  Right now you are establishing a new habit.

Establish Polite Habits in Your Kids

My own daughter turned four a couple months ago, but she didn’t start talking until she was three (she has verbal apraxia).  When she was three, if she said, “I want milk!” I’d respond directly with the cue: “May I have some milk please?”  Now that she’s four, when she announces, “I want milk,”  I reply, “If you want milk, you can ask for some.”  If she looks confused or has any trouble, I’ll prompt her: “May I have some milk please, mom?” 

Likewise, when she holds something out and demands, “Tie this for me,”  I’ll say, “If you want help, you can ask for some,”  or, “How can you ask in a way that makes me want to say yes?” Then, if needed, I prompt her, “Will you help me tie this, please?”  When she says it, I respond exactly as if she had come up with this all on her own. “Sure, I’m happy to help,” or, “Sure, I can help when I’m done with my breakfast,” or “Why don’t you ask Daddy.” At the beginning I try to reward nice asking with a yes, but now that we’ve had lots of practice she needs to ask nicely no matter what the response is.

We have done these two prompts (“May I have some XXX please” and “Will you help me XXX please”) so many times that now when she demands, “Give me grapes!” And I say, “Oh, if you’d like some grapes, why don’t you ask for some?” now she immediately puts on a sweet voice and says, “May I have some grapes please, Mommy?”

When Can They Be Polite Without Prompting?

The big question is, how long does it take to get from having to cue her every time, to her saying it on her own? The answer: longer than you think it should.  You can minimize the time by giving your child a phrase and tone to imitate  EVERY time; the more consistent you can be, the more quickly a new habit is formed.  However, sometimes you then create a new habit where you and your son go through the entire “script” of him demanding, you cuing, and him repeating, and it seems like he thinks this is how every request SHOULD go.  Once that’s pretty strong, you can let him know that he can skip straight to the nice asking “Some day I bet you’ll be able to ask nicely the first time, without any reminding.”  Other times, don’t even say the cue; your son announces what he needs/wants and you can just look at him expectantly.  On a good day he’ll bust out the nice asking on his own, but other times he’ll still need you to trot out the phrase and tone after your pause fails to elicit the nice request that you were hoping for.

I have a couple of other blog posts on this subject, too:

Hang in there!  


Warmly,    ~Miss Faith


Looking for more practical advice on how to help your children be enjoyable and responsive to you?  Get my book, Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love.  Check out the reviews on Amazon, then buy it through my website!

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