Why won't my child's ‘whys' end? Q: My 3½-year-old daughter is mired in the "why" stage and my husband and I are losing our minds. She will ask why Daddy has to go to work. We explain, but she again asks, "Why?"
After we explain further, she continues to repeat, "Why?" Finally, in spite of our best intentions, we get irritated and call a time-out to questions. Then she gets upset and asks us every other second whether the time-out is up and she can ask questions again. We feel she is dragging us down to her level, but we don't know what to do. Suggestions? K. R., Chicago
A: The "why" stage, like the "no" stage, can be stressful for parents, but it is perfectly normal and, if it is not turned into a power struggle, is limited. In part, 3-year-olds are developing a real curiosity about the world and how it works and are really interested in having their questions answered. Partly, though, they are old enough to perceive that adults seem to have a lot of fun talking to each other and that they would like to be just like Mommy and Daddy and be right at the center of ongoing conversations.
Asking "why" is a sure way to engage adults in discussion and to feel they can have the same kind of fun Mommy and Daddy have. It is also a way to express age-appropriate needs for attention or to handle feeling hungry, tired or generally, out of sorts. The "why" phase tapers off when children become able to engage in more sophisticated forms of dialogue and when they become more able to enjoy independent projects and play.
When your daughter asks "why," it is important not to become irritated because she will get the message that her curiosity is somehow wrong. Rather answer a few of her questions and then gently steer her in a different direction (for example, offer food if you think she is hungry, or suggest she sit in your lap and hear a story if you think she is tired). This will allow you to escape from the "why" loop without dimming your daughter's enthusiasm for learning.
Should a 3-year-old be forced to go to preschool? Q: My daughter, who turned 3 in July, will be starting preschool in September. She says she isn't going to go. When I ask why, she says she knows she won't like it, that it won't be fun. When I describe all of the wonderful things there will be to do, the friends she will make, and the nice teachers she will have, she says she doesn't care, she wants to stay home. My friends say to tell her she has to go. But I worry that forcing her isn't a good idea. What do you think? K.L., Naperville
A: There are two possible reasons for your daughter's aversion to starting preschool. The first is that she is feeling anxious about separating from you and about committing herself to the unknown. The second is that she really is not ready for preschool and should wait a year.
To ease her fear of separating, assure her that you will stay with her at school as long as she needs you. Most preschools are now sensitive to the fact that children have different timetables for separating; some children immerse themselves in the classroom activities immediately and never look back; others need a week or two of having a parent available for comfort and refueling. To address her concerns about preschool, check to see whether the preschool has a summer program. That would allow her to see the classroom and observe the fun the children are having.
But if, despite all your efforts, your daughter remains terribly upset at the thought of going to school, there is no harm in waiting a year. With another year to mature, your daughter should enter school ready to learn and enjoy herself, and she will take that positive attitude into the later grades. Forcing her to go when she feels scared and upset may sour her on school and be the source of learning problems in future years.
My toddler is a terror: Is something wrong with him? Q: How do you suggest we handle our 2½-year-old's aggressive behavior at the playground. Tim marches up to a child who has a toy he wants, grabs it and then refuses to give it back. I have to physically take it away from him and hand it back to the other child. Then he tries to grab it again. If another child wants one of his toys, he hangs on to it and screams. I try to talk to him about sharing, but he won't listen. The other thing is he won't wait his turn-he actually has tried to push other children off the stairs to the slide so he can get on faster. Again, he pays no attention when we try to explain the importance of taking turns. At home with us, he's a very loving and sweet boy, but we are worried about this antisocial behavior and don't know how to deal with it. S. G., Oak Park
A: You are witnessing normal 2-year-old behavior. Your son is at an age when he wants what he wants when he wants it, regardless of who or what is standing in his way.
Trying to get him to share is counterproductive. He will react by becoming even more attached to his toys and more suspicious of other children; that is, he will become less, not more, altruistic.
If he grabs another child's toy or tries to push children out of the way to get to the slide, the goal is to manage his behavior in a friendly manner, to use loving regulation. Gently return the toy and try to find him something else to play with or comfort him when he cries. Pick him up off the slide and tell him in an understanding tone that you know it's hard to wait, but he can't push other children.
Once you realize his "antisocial" behavior is age-appropriate, you can see that it makes no sense to become angry or disapproving. Your son will outgrow this phase and want to share and take turns because his friends will have become more important to him than any toy.
Here's your chance to get some answers to your pressing parenting questions. If you're trying to figure out how to handle some aspect of your child's behavior, send your question to Chicago Parent Q&A, 141 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; or e-mail it to SPedersen@wjinc.com. The Piepers will respond to three questions per month. Sorry-they are unable to respond to questions that they do not answer for publication. For more answers to questions from readers since January 2000, visit our Web site, www.chicagoparent.com. Click on “Past Issues" and then “Smart Love." For a more complete understanding of the Pieper's philosophy and psychology, read their book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline That Will Make You A Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person.
Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D. are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors That Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline That Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.