Why You Shouldn’t Count On Counting

When my two-and-a-half-year-old son (now four) turned into the boss baby and refused to get dressed to go out, I knew I had a big problem. Of course, I resorted to a tactic thousands of parents resort to, counting! I told him, “I am going to count to 5 and if you don’t get dressed you are going to be in big trouble! 1, 2, 3, 4, 4 ½, …” As I got close to 5 it started to become very clear that it he was not going to get dressed. I thought to myself, what will I do to him if I get to 5 and he still refuses? So, I got to 5 and he was still fighting me on getting dressed. I chased him around, held him down and forced the clothes on him. He was kicking and screaming and crying so hard. If you heard the noise coming out of our house, you’d think it were a battle field. This behavior continued every single day for the next 6 months.

What was I going to do? Count every time? Give a greater punishment? Be late to work every day? Even if counting or threatening worked and he finally got dressed because mommy was starting to count, what exactly did that teach him? I want my son to be intrinsically motivated to get dressed because that’s part of life, not get forced to dress. Think back to Pavlov and Skinner, who demonstrate that children can be conditioned by experiences, patterns, and routines. The routine of waking up, running after him, counting and threatening, then dressing him would only condition him to listen to me only after the threats and anger he entices in me. I knew that I didn’t have the time or energy to do that, and besides, I wanted him to want to get dressed.

Being that my son is as stubborn as I am, I knew the best way I could tackle this issue would be by offering choices. I introduced the tool of limited choices! I changed our morning routine and my approach by allowing him to choose what he would wear. The night before I would lay out 2 outfits I wanted him to wear, then asked him in the morning which he would prefer. At first he was hesitant and tested my new strategy, but once he saw that I was giving him the power to choose, he was on board. Occasionally he didn’t like the pants or shirt I chose for him and so we would go to his closet together and I would ask him to pick the pants or shirt he liked and that’s what he would wear. On more than one occasion, we left the house with my son wearing his Spiderman crocs, Thomas the train sweats, and a tractor shirt. My friends would ask jokingly, “did he dress himself?” Yes! I’d tell them proudly. What was more important to me was for my little guy to be motivated to get dressed and leave the house, to feel like he had a choice and to feel a sense of empowerment in making those choices that he will eventually make as an adolescent and adult. After he realized that he had choices, he felt very confident and empowered and getting dressed was no longer this horrible battle where mom holds him down and forces clothes on him. Whether his clothes were matching or not was a secondary concern.

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