Here is a story from my family to illustrate how not only do you not always need to fix, convince, explain, or argue, but sometimes empathy and connection really are enough to inspire a child to do what you expect of them. Many of us are still home with children, but daycares and camps are opening up, so I thought I'd share a story from some years back about trying to get out the door for preschool.
Soon after one of my sons turned 4, there was a week when he was away from both parents a lot more than normal because of our work and travel. The first morning things were back to normal, he woke up (wet from pee by the way) and said he didn’t want to go to school. I did NOT say anything about him needing to go school, choosing instead to give him a little space until I could really empathize with him ("Connect before you Correct," as Laura Markham says). After getting him out of his wet clothes and cleaning him up, our interaction went something like this, with S being my son and M being me (Mommy).
S – How about today I don’t go to school? Maybe I’m not feeling well.
M – So you’re not feeling like going to school today?
S – That’s right. I just want to stay home today and be with you and [other son].
M – I see.
S – Yeah, I’m not going to school today.
M – Has it been hard being away from me so much this week?
S – (nods)
M - You went to school every day and you didn’t even see me before bed last night. I know I missed you a LOT. Did you miss me?
S – Yes.
M – Boy, I missed you so much. I am so happy to see you right now. I just want to squeeze you and sqoosh you in a giant hug. Is that okay?
S – No. (a bit standing off from me, not looking me right in the eye – a bit protective I think – maybe trying to hide the feelings so he didn't have to be vulnerable)...
M – Oh. Can I kiss your elbow?
S – (smiling a bit now) No!
M – PLEASE!!! (pretend whiny) But I really really really really want to!!
S – Sorry! (Smiling)
M – Well can I give you a smoodge then? (This is an unidentified term I made up at some point for some kind of affection that’s not a hug or kiss)
S – No!
M – Well then I have to do this… (I crept up to him and quickly, gently nuzzled his belly since he was smiling at me as I approached)
S – No! You can’t! (really smiling big now - wanting connection)
M – Can I help you put your clothes on just like when you were little?
S – Ok.
I put his shirt over his head and helped him step into one of his pant legs. He did the rest.
M – Well, if I can’t hug or kiss you, can I carry you down the stairs? That way I can steal a snuggle!
S – No! You can’t steal a snuggle because I’m lending it to you on purpose!
M – (He held his arms out for me to hold him. I nuzzled his neck) – Oh thank you! I really appreciate it. I missed you so much I really needed a good snuggle with you.
(After we got downstairs…)
M – Do you want to eat some oatmeal first or put your shoes and socks on first?
S – Oatmeal!!
He made no more mention of not going to school. No more resistance of any kind for the rest of the morning. Easy school drop off. Voila – empathy and connection completely melted the resistance. Is it always this picture perfect? In my house yes… (ha ha just kidding!). Of course not. But sometimes it is, thanks to these skills. Boy am I glad I knew I didn’t need to argue with him that morning about why he “had” to go to school.
A follow up to this story is that another one of my sons (I have 3) went through something similar at age four, except that while my son in the story above was soothed fairly quickly with empathy and connection, my other child needed to cry and be listened to in his tears before he was able to transition his mindset. Though it took longer, I still think the same approach is what ultimately worked – acknowledging feelings for a while before using choices to make a point of what I expected him to do.
If you have a child who has bigger feelings, or whose feelings seem to need more time to express, it can help to plan for it when possible. One thing I did for mornings for a long time with the child who tended to have big feelings about the impending separation of going to school, besides doing as much night before school prep as possible, was I would plan for 10 minutes of play or reading time together at school drop off, so that there would be a 10 minute cushion of time in case he had feelings to process in the morning.
The 10 minutes of playtime at drop off also worked as an incentive built into the routine (not a bribe!) to help him get out the door more quickly. I know that this particular strategy is not available to every family, and that lots of us aren't going places right now. But once school becomes a thing again, if getting out the door is a challenge in your home, it is worth considering if there can be something to look forward to after getting out the door. It might even help make the getting ready part faster!