*When Choices Don’t Work

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My preschooler can be very stubborn. When he doesn’t get his way he will often react with a tantrum. Just this morning after finishing his cereal, it was time to drive to school. But he wanted more cereal. Unfortunately there was no time. I offered him a choice: cereal in a bag or in a cup. But he only wanted cereal in a bowl with milk.  In these cases I am not sure what else I should do. 

Yours truly,

No Choice Chosen


Dear No Choice Chosen,

What can you do when you offer a child a perfectly reasonable choice and he rejects both?

First, start by accepting feelings. When a child is experiencing strong feelings he may not be ready for a choice.  Since your son is feeling very emotional, you’ll want to put some drama into your voice!

“Ah, you don’t want dry cereal! You want it with milk! That’s the best. Nice wet soupy goopy milky cereal. Not stupid old dry cereal in a cup.”

You can give in fantasy what you can’t give in reality:  

“I wish I had a button to press to stop time for 10 minutes. Then you could have your cereal and milk, and we still wouldn’t be late.”


“I wish I had a giant plastic bubble inside the car for you to sit in, so that it wouldn’t matter if milk spilled. That would be nice!”

Try putting the child in charge. Put him to work coming up with his own choices:

“Well, the problem is I can’t allow milk in the car. What can you eat in the car that has no liquid in it? We need an idea.”

There’s no guarantee that this will work. You are in a rush; your child is in a “mood.” It’s possible that you’ll still have to drag a crying child to the car. But all of these approaches avoid confrontation and invite your child to work with you rather than against you. You’ve got good odds his resistance will melt away once you enlist his help. And if it doesn’t work in the moment, you can always plan for next time with a problem-solving session on “What To Do When There’s Not Enough Time For Seconds.”

*Clingy Kid

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My son is 3 years old and he gets really nervous and sad when I leave for work. Once a week he stays with his grandma and it’s okay (not always but nearly).

However when he stays with his nanny (three days a week) he is “traumatized”. He starts crying, shouting, and imploring that I stay home. The nanny says that often when I am not there he asks for me and gets really sad.

I tried explaining that I go to work because we need to have a roof above our heads, because we need to have something in our plates to eat, we want him to be able to go on holidays and discover the world, and furthermore I like working as much as he likes going to school (I don’t want him to grow thinking that working is difficult and boring. I want him to feel that working is cool and rewarding). I tried telling him I’d prefer to stay with him if I could. Nothing works.

The same story starts again every week. I would be pleased to get your advice on this. Thank you very much in advance.

With warm regards,

Working Mom


Hi Working Mom,

I understand your impulse to explain to your son the reasons why you go to work. They are all such good ones!  But I’m sure you have noticed by now that we can’t explain away emotions. A three-year-old is unlikely to say, “Gee, Mother, now that you’ve laid it out so logically, I can see that I need to put my personal feelings aside and take a broader perspective.”

The most helpful thing you can do for your son is to acknowledge his feelings.  Not when you are under pressure right before you have to leave for work of course, but when you can find a peaceful moment to sit down with your son. Set your explanations and logic aside and focus on his feelings.

You might try saying something like:

“Boy you REALLY don’t like it when I leave you with the nanny!”

“It makes you so sad, you feel like holding me tight so I won’t go!”

“You don’t want me to go off to a stupid job.”

“You’d rather have me stay home with you every day.”

Give your son time to reply and encourage him to air all his objections. Show him that you accept all his feelings:

“Oh, so sometimes that nanny makes you mad! You don’t like it when she says you have to finish everything on your plate! You’d rather be the one to say when you’re hungry and when you’re full.”

“Ah, and you don’t like having to take a nap. It’s boring and you don’t feel sleepy. You’d rather watch a show on the television.”

You might want to make a written list of his grievances:

“Wait a minute; let me get a paper and pencil. I want to write down all the things that bother you.”

Your son will appreciate hearing his list read back to him out loud with plenty of emotion! Once he’s feeling thoroughly heard, you can go into problem solving mode:

“I wonder if there’s anything we can do to make the time with the nanny more fun, or at least less awful. Let’s make another list.”

On this new list you can write down ideas for special activities your son might enjoy doing with the nanny – making playdoh, finger-painting, baking cookies – as well as his suggestions for what not to do.  He may want to keep a picture of you in his pocket, or some other special talisman. Be sure to write everything down, including ideas you find completely unacceptable (Lock the nanny in a closet! Quit your job!)

Afterwards you can go through the list together and check the items you both like. Then you can put your new plan into action.

One powerful effect of this approach is that you will hear more from your child. When you stop explaining and start listening and accepting feelings, you will find learn more about what is bothering him. You may find out that there is something upsetting your son which can be resolved by a simple conversation with the nanny. Or you may find out that the problems are deeper and this nanny is not a “good fit” for your child.  It could be that your son is putting up such a protest simply because he misses you, but it’s also possible that there is something more seriously unpleasant going on during his day with this nanny.

Please write back and let me know what happens!


*Kids with Kittens

Dear Julie and Joanna,

My six-year-old son loves our kitten. He plays with the kitten appropriately 50% of the time, the other 50% he is playing too rough and carrying the cat around against its will.  I don’t think he means it harm, he just loves it so. 

I am starting to get frustrated with using the phrase, “We expect you to play gently with the cat!” and showing ways to play properly.  We have to tell him multiple times a day and I can see that it is just not working.

Please help!

Mom of a Cat Lover


Dear Mom of a Cat Lover,

I have a few tweaks to make to your basically sound approach. First, I appreciate that you understand that your son is not harassing the poor cat out of meanness, but rather out of an overabundance of enthusiasm. And that you are giving him information rather than scolding. Let’s just make the information a little more specific, and add another step…take action without insult. After you have secured safety for all, you can help redirect your child with choices and point out the positive with descriptive praise. Here’s how it might go…

Instead of reminding him to “play gently” (what does “gently” mean to a six-year-old after all?)  let’s give information:

“I can see the kitty is getting scared. When she lashes her tail like that it means she’s nervous.”

“The kitty is struggling because  she doesn’t like to be held. She likes it when you scratch her head like this!”

If he can’t quite bring himself to back off, you can take action:

“I’m putting the kitty in my bedroom for a while. She needs a break for now.”

And then put her in there and lock the door. A simple hook and eye lock on the door can provide safe haven for a beleaguered cat. You can help move your son on to another activity by offering a choice. It can even be a cat-related activity.

“Do you want to make a toy for the kitty? We have feathers, crumpled paper and string.”

“Let’s give the real cat a rest. We can play with your stuffed animal cat or with your trucks.”

You might also take time out to notice and appreciate those times when he is being gentle with the cat. Be sure to use descriptive praise.

“The kitty likes it when you do that. I can hear her purring.”

“Wow, she’s really enjoying that pipe cleaner on a string toy you made for her. Look at her pounce!”

At six many children are not quite old enough yet to exert self-control consistently around such a delicate creature. In fact many adoption groups refuse to adopt out puppies or kittens to families with children under seven.

With a little more time, and your gentle guidance, your son will get there soon!