Preschoolers and the art of persuasion

Guest post by Libby Anne
Photo by foilman, used under Creative Commons license.

In real life, how often do we do something (or not do something) simply because someone told us to (or not to)? Not that often, really. We wear seat belts because we know it’s safer, we take out our trash because we know that otherwise it’ll pile up and start to stink, and we take medicine because we know it will make us feel better. And yet adults assume that children should do things (or not do things) simply “because I said so.” I don’t do that. Instead I engage in what I call “the art of persuasion.”

My goal is to help my preschool-aged daughter Sally understand why I ask her to do what I ask her to do, and to help her choose to do it herself rather than simply forcing her to do it. I often remind her that when I tell her to do something she is allowed two responses: “okay” or “why?” I see “why” as a perfectly reasonable response when asked to do something — it’s how I often respond when told to do something in real life, after all. When someone tells me, say, that I should have life insurance, my response is not to run out and get life insurance but rather to ask why.

I have a number of tools in my persuasion toolbox. I’m going to take a moment to illustrate how I might use each to handle a specific situation — trying to get Sally to clean up her kitchen set toys. I often will use some combination of these tools, or will move from one to another if I find that the first isn’t working.


“Sally, look: the kitchen set toys are all over the floor, right here in the walkway. Someone might trip on them and fall and get hurt.”

“Someone might get hurt?”

“Yes, and that wouldn’t be good, would it? Mommy would like you to clean up your toys so that no one will get hurt.”

“Someone might get hurt! Have to clean up toys!”


“Sally, you need to clean up your kitchen set toys.”

“Don’t want to.”

“I know you don’t want to, but the toys do need to be cleaned up. I’ll tell you what, how about if I help you clean up the toys: and then we’ll go get some ice cream out of the freezer and have a special treat together?”



“Hey Sally, let’s have a race! You clean up the toys on that side of the floor and I’ll clean up the ones on this side of the floor, and we’ll see who gets done first!”

“Yeah! I going to beat you!”

“No, I’m going to win!”

“No! I going to beat you!”

There are times, of course, when nothing seems to work. In those cases I try to understand what other factors might be affecting the situation. Is she tired? Hungry? Simply having a bad day? Suggesting a break so that she and I can calm down or regroup helps if I find myself starting to escalate the situation. There was, for example, a recent time when I became angry with her because nothing seemed to be able to convince her to clean up what I was asking her to clean up. Realizing that I ran the risk of breaking everything I believe about parenting, I shut myself in the bathroom to calm down, allowing her to do the same in the hall outside the door, and when I came out she calmly explained her side and I was able to calmly listen, and together we were able to start over.

In practice, though, one of these three tools, or some combination of them, almost always works. I love seeing the gears turning in Sally’s head as she truly understands why I’m asking her to do something, and I love her excitement when she races to complete a task before I do. Sometimes, too, it’s Sally herself who comes up with a compromise we can both live with. And through all of this, I’d like to hope that I’m equipping Sally with tools that will help her in the future.

Comments on Preschoolers and the art of persuasion

  1. I don’t know how I feel about the “compromise” option. I don’t believe that kids should be rewarded for cleaning up after themselves or doing chores. It seems like in our culture we have to bribe kids to do things all the time, when really we should be teaching kids that this is something that we do because if we don’t clean up, toys get lost or broken…or someone will trip over them.

    Maybe if the compromise was “we can read a story together” or something more along the lines of transitioning to the next activity would be better.

    • We as adults receive rewards for everything we do, including cleaning. A nice reward for an adult is to be able to relax in a clean environment. Most toddlers enjoy messes, so this is not much of a reward for them. For them a better reward is special time with mom, a treat, or some kind of motivation. In positive discipline rewards play a crucial roll. Rewards though should not be confused with bribes.

      • I like and use these strategies. It’s good to have more than one idea in your toolbox, because today’s motivation to brush teeth may not work tomorrow. I would also add to consider whether something really needs to be done. I am a busy body sometimes and I’ve had to scale back my expectations to get more compliance (like cleaning up toys once a day instead of the second she’s done with them). And I try to remember that my toddlers needs and values are different, but no less important than mine (especially when I’m getting mad!). My kid is currently looking for any excuse to say no, so I do a lot of giving two options (you brush first or me brush first), and sticking with them. (Yesterday she said she wasn’t going to choose, lol, but it usually works).
        I also share concerns about using food as a treat. When we do this, we link food to emotional reward instead of nourishment. As we get older, we then look to treat ourselves with unhealthy foods in order to cope with uncomfortable feelings. I know some people don’t agree, but as a nutritionist, I see it as very common these days.

    • I don’t know, I’m an adult and I reward myself for doing chores. “If I finish vacuuming, I can watch a few reruns of How I Met Your Mother.” “If I finish all the laundry today, I’ll go to the pool.” Sure, vacuuming and laundry have to be done, period, but what’s the harm in using the promise of something fun afterward to motivate myself? Or someone else?

    • I agree, but specifically because we’re talking about ice cream. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally pro ice cream! But a lot of the food writing I’ve read suggests that food and/or treat food isn’t a great idea as a reward (or a punishment, like going without something). I think food needs to be a thing we deserve to enjoy regardless of what else is happening, including occasional treats.

      I understand it’s not always possible to keep these things separate, but I just wanted to voice that food as a reward and other enjoyable things as a reward might be different.

      Of course this is an ideal, and when parenting you have

  2. I agree that the example given as a compromise seems more like bribery, but hey – who hasn’t resorted to that on occasion? 🙂 Like the previous commenter said, I often make cleaning up part of a transition. For example, we have to clean up before we can eat lunch or go to the park or do something else fabulous and fun!

    I LOVE your competition idea because I’m a big fan of making chores fun. We sing a “clean up” song that I learned working in daycare.

    • The “compromise” is bribery. Sally knows what she’ll get if she cleans up, and then has the option of deciding that whatever it is isn’t worth doing the cleaning. A “reward” is something that is mentioned AFTER the cleaning up, as in, “Great job cleaning up your toys! Now we can have ice cream (or a sticker, or whatever else is rewarding)” A small difference, but an important one. A true compromise would be “You clean up the food, and I’ll clean up the dishes” or “Lets at least push the toys out of the hallway so no one trips on them.” A great tool in the toolbox, too!
      Overall, I love the tone of this article. As an adult, I’m always asking why. And honestly, as a parent, answering that question of “why do I have to do this?” may help us realign our priorities. WHY does your teenager have a curfew? WHY are good grades important? Maybe you find that you can’t come up with a good answer to a WHY…which may cause a re-evaluation of the whole reason you’re doing it in the first place.

      • My favorite example of the asking why part: I wanted popcorn for breakfast in high school. My mother told me no and took the bag out of my hand, saying that popcorn is not a breakfast food. I asked her, “Why can’t I have popcorn, a whole grain with no sugar and [in this case] no salt, but Dad can have Corn Pops which are POPPED CORN with salt, sugar, and some other crap I can’t even pronounce?”

        My mother was not known for accepting logic as an argument, but there was a pregnant pause while my dad stood like a deer in headlights with the box of corn pops poised over his bowl, and then my mother tossed me back the bag and said, “You know what? you make an excellent point. Have a glass of milk with it and we’ll call it a deal.” (I giggled like an idiot and promised to get some fruit in me too.)

        What I learned from this experience is that there are always alternative options for food, and that “this is how we do it” isn’t a good enough reason to do anything. (Although strangely, corn pops didn’t end up back in the house after that.) I also learned that logic and reason can win an argument, an idea to which I still fondly cling like a life-vest despite faced with resounding evidence to the contrary.

      • actually I’ve got to disagree with you on that point (and it’s ok to disagree)
        IN behaviour strategies at school we sit with the child at the beginning and clearly explain the rewards and consequences of their behaviour at the beginning.
        so from the get go they can decide whether it’s worth it to them to behave or not.
        The trick is is finding an appropriate motivator! (and this totally varies from child to child)

        • I’m not sure about children, but there are new studies that suggest pre-conditioned rewards actually drive motivation down. Check out Drive, by Daniel Pink

          • Rewards drive INTRINSIC motivation down. In most school settings, it doesn’t matter whether motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic, all that matters is whether the task gets done. In the short term, extrinsic motivation usually works faster.

        • It’s OK for for kids to know that they’ll get something for doing something right. As in, every time they clean up their toys, they are going to get a star on their chart or whatever. There’s a general history of getting rewarded with praise, treats, recognition, etc. A bribe is a targeted, pre-emptive “If you do this thing, I’ll give you this thing.” It’s a really subtle difference. The thing with bribes too is that we tend to escalate them….he’s not doing it for one cookie, so you offer two, or three, or the whole box. He learns to hold out for the biggest bribe possible. What you are describing is still a reward, not a bribe, at least how I’ve always been taught to differentiate the two 🙂

  3. These are great!

    My mom NEVER told me to do something “just because” when I was a kid, both because she respected me as a human being who deserved to know the rationale of something, and she didn’t want to raise someone who would blindly followed orders! I think that giving kids reasons for things is about respect – just because they’re kids doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to know why something is important. Not to mention that at a young age, asking “why?” all the time isn’t to get on your nerves, but because they’re trying to figure out the world around them!

    My mom did have a *certain* tone of voice, which she very rarely used, that made it clear that I was to immediately do what she said without hesitation, but it was only ever used in emergency situations.

  4. My mom tried to do this… but the problem was I wouldn’t believe her explanations! For example, if she were to say that someone could get hurt on toys spewed about the living room I would look at her and say that no one would get hurt because I was the clumsiest person in the house and I wouldn’t get hurt by tripping over the toys!

    That being said, she usually had none of it and made me do it anyway (you know, with the “Look”). Basically, I knew I was full of it, but had to try!

    But what did help with me is collaboration. While we never did collaboration when cleaning up our own messes (at least that I can remember – I’m sure we did when we were very small) if we were doing housework, everyone was doing housework so it wasn’t nearly as bad.

    • I’ve definitely found that kids don’t often believe explanations if they have to do with some potential future consequence. It’s the same for adults, too — some adults won’t wear seat belts in the car or helmets on their bike because, “I’m sure I’ll be fine.” It seems that the more immediate the possible consequence, the more effective the explanation.

  5. As a preschool teacher, I would like to add one strategy: offering choices. Just two, and either choice has to be something YOU are okay with (e.g., Don’t say, “You can hit your brother or you can be nice” if you don’t want her to choose hitting her brother!)

    You can have them choose ways to do something (“Do you want to clean up with your hands or with a broom?”), times to do something (“You can eat your snack first or go potty first, which one?”), etc.

    For a kid that’s motivated by being independent, “you can do it by yourself or I can help you” is like flipping a switch. And if they refuse to make a choice, which happens occasionally, I use the line, “You can choose or I can choose for you,” followed by a 1-2-3 countdown. Then follow through.

    I like offering choices because it lets kids have some control over their surroundings. Also, I work with kids with developmental delays- they don’t always understand when we explain why it’s important to eat, go potty, or not hit others. Offering choices helps a lot of the time with them when an explanation doesn’t.

  6. I love these three strategies! I’m a middle school teacher, and I had never really categorized how I communicate with my most reticent students, but I’m pretty sure that this is how I operate in my classroom most of the time, too. These strategies definitely work with older kiddos, too!

    I’ll agree that offering external rewards can get dicey (because soon the only reason they’re doing what they’re doing is for the reward, not for the act itself), so I like to find “mutual prizes,” like getting to listen to music while we write, or letting kids do a fun classroom task. They get something they want, but what they get ultimately contributes to everyone being happy (me included), and I make sure they know I’m grateful both for them doing the right thing initially and for the fun result. This can be so adaptable!

  7. I don’t think it’s bad for kids to work for rewards some of the time. I do plenty of things as an adult for rewards, although they may be more abstract. I do the dishes before my husband comes homes each day because it puts him in a better mood, which makes MY day better. We work for pay, literally, at our jobs. If the mess isn’t bothering the child but it’s bothering YOU, what is their incentive to pick it up otherwise? I get this and was actually going to ask if anyone has ideas for WHY my toddler shouldn’t dump his water all over the table. It doesn’t hurt anything but is really annoying when he does it daily! I’m losing my patience just a little.

    • I totally agree! Honestly, I think it’s silly for us to assume that humans in general do ANYTHING without a reward. Even the most seemingly selfless actions have rewards. If you donate money to a charity, you’re getting REWARDED with the warm fuzzy feelings of helping others. Why do we get tax breaks for charitable donations? Because for some people, the warm fuzzies aren’t enough of a reward. When we “reward” kids for doing stuff, it doesn’t have to be with material goods. It can a be a social or emotional reward. Praise, a hug, bragging rights, etc. I read a blog recently about potty training in which the mom allowed her daughter to call someone on the phone and tell them every time she went potty on the potty. Super-creative reward!
      When adults clean the house, we are rewarded with the satisfaction of a job well done, or not having to live in clutter, or a happy spouse. But for kids, those things might not be rewarding at all….so we need to find something else to motivate them. Hopefully as they grow up and mature, they’ll develop the mental capacity to be rewarded by less materialist or tangible things. But to expect a toddler to do something and be rewarded with “personal satisfaction at a job well-done” is not being realistic about human nature, in my opinion.

    • Well, it’s messy, which probably means less to a kid. It could also mean one or more of the following:
      Someone has to clean it up (consequences). That takes time away from other necessary or fun things.
      If it spills on his clothes, he’ll be cold and perhaps uncomfortable and might need to change clothes.
      It could spill on something (food? artwork? books? cell phone?) and ruin it.
      It could be a slipping hazard.
      It annoys Mommy. (Sometimes that’s a legitimate deterrent — not because kids should be afraid of yelling or hitting, but because it otherwise impacts the quality of their experience.)
      It’s not nice to hurt feelings or inconvenience people on purpose. (Might need to wait until a particular kid is in an empathy-building stage for him to understand.)

      • To add to the list: Sometimes kids really just need to learn the hard way. BUT I think they need to hear the lesson FIRST! In this example, one reason not to dump the water is he might get wet and then he will be chilly. Then let him dump the water! And let him get chilly! Let him even leave the house like that, even on a cold day, to illustrate the point. He will get wet. Then he will be chilly. Then he will complain to you about being chilly. Then you will say, “Oh, you spilled your water earlier!” And then [somehow, with only the strength that comes from loving your child to the ends of the earth and beyond, you will NOT say “I told you so!” out loud] you will whip out a nice warm, dry shirt and you will say, “Here, I have another shirt for you, it is not wet so it should keep you warm.”

        Learning natural consequences, along the same lines of “if I put a package of chicken breasts in the kitchen trash can and then go on vacation for a week, when I come back my house will smell, so next time I should take out the trash before I leave on vacation, and possibly just learn to take those stinky trash items right outside or leave them in the fridge until trash day.” No one learns that less by watching their parents. Everyone learns about stinky trash the hard way.

  8. I like these approaches / options. We are struggling a lot these days with these kinds of issues — mostly surrounding bedtime, and less so clean-up — and it is helpful to see how other parents who hold similar parenting philosophies do things.

    The trickiest thing for me, though, is handling anger / hitting / aggression. I am so so conflicted balanced the different “schools of thought” on this. I am able to keep my cool and not take it personally, but I still feel sometimes like we need to be a little more focused on “consequences,” even as I understand that we also need to discuss what happened and that ultimately he needs to learn WHY hitting is not good, and not just that it makes Mommy mad and results in a time out.

    Challenging stuff. Thanks for sharing!

    • I have a 6 month old so CLEARLY I know it all about preschoolers… ha ha ha… but at least when dealing with preschoolers on a more short term basis, I’ve found that the purpose of the time out matters (to me, if not to the preschooler). A time-out as a chance for everyone to calm down feels different to me than a time-out as punishment. So if a toddler understands why hitting isn’t a good idea and are hitting because they’re so upset they can’t think of an alternative, a time-out works better for me than if they don’t understand why hitting is bad.

  9. These are fantastic. We found out a long time ago our toddler would never do things “just because” and was always more receptive when we reasoned with him, or if he was getting praise or a reward. It really helped us as parents and partners, too, to bring that into our adult lives.

  10. Instead of bribing a kid to clean her room, I’d rather use a natural, positive consequence:

    “If I have to clean the toys up myself, it’ll take a long time. If you help me, it won’t take as long, and then we’ll have some time afterwards to read a story/go to the park/have a cookie before naptime.”

    It’s the same effect, but instead of putting you in power (do this so I can reward you, I’m the all-powerful cookie-giver!) or her in power (you only have to do things if you’re getting a treat for it!), you’re explaining a benefit of doing the chore quickly and without recalcitrance.

    I wouldn’t call rewarding her with a treat “compromising” either. To me, compromising means something like “I know you don’t want to clean up your toys. It’s not fun to have to put them away. I’ll tell you what. If you just pick up the yellow toys, I’ll pick up the rest. I’m bigger than you, so I know it’s easier for me than you. You don’t have to do the whole job yourself if I see you’re really trying to do part of it.”

  11. These are great tools. I feel like I could do a better job at being patient with my 2 year old. He’s just not quite to the cognitive stage to understand compromise or competition.

    He’s getting there, but you it seems boys are a bit slower with verbal skills. He has also seemed to inherited his parent’s stubbornness. When the boy wants something it’s like trying to steer a locomotive (choo choo) off it’s tracks. Difficult to use reasoning or even bribes to dissuade him.

    I find sometimes just getting down on his level, sympathizing with his frustration, but remaining firm seems to work. At least the screaming only lasts about 5 minutes instead of 15.

    Luckily, he’s at the stage where he really likes to help, so I’m trying to embrace that. Even when it means allowing him to make more of a mess than the one I’m cleaning up.

  12. I understand wanting your children to understand why they need to do something. It makes perfect sense–they’re more likely to do it happily, less fighting, whatever. However, my husband’s ex took this view in her parenting and whether she did it differently than described here or not, I don’t know. I do know what the long-term consequences can be, though. My 10yo step-daughter and 6yo step-son do not do anything that they’re told without being told first why, and it usually involved some sassy, sarcastic comments and not a genuine question. The girl KNOWS not to hit her brother. We shouldn’t have to tell her at this age why that’s not okay. Additionally, she almost walked in front of a train because she was asking why she had to stop walking while she was still walking!! With my children, we expect them to obey, and then they can ask why. They seem to be okay with this, as they get their explanation and it usually allays any frustration they feel during the actual obedience portion. I’m just saying that allowing a kid to always question you can have negative consequences, just like any other parenting tactic.

  13. I wonder about the age of the children in question. Both ‘preschooler’ and ‘toddler’ are being said, but I think they are at far different levels of comprehension. My boys have always been far more physically active than verbal in their early years, so explaining stuff like this doesn’t always work for them. Racing around doing things as quickly as possible works sometimes.

  14. Though I’m not *quite* a mom yet, I have a lot of cousins, nieces and I have taught kids from 3 and up in group settings for many years. I really feel like it’s about ground rules and consequences. I’ve watched so many miserable kids wrangle ice cream out of their tired, stressed out, miserable parents (for deciding to finally behave or do their chores after misbehaving) to feel that rewards just aren’t worth the trouble. If I have a problem with clean-up time, the rule is: You clean it up in x minutes, you get to keep your toys. In x minutes, if it’s still there, I clean them up and *I* keep them. You never see them again. Most kids only get it if it’s a consequence that directly affects them, artificially created or not.
    It’s my house. It’s your mess. That’s why.

    Case in point: When I was growing up, we had a rule about the grocery store. If we asked for a treat, we automatically didn’t get one. If we didn’t ask for a treat, we’d sometimes get one, but often not. Very frustrating lesson to learn. Drove me bananas. I just wanted that mars bar/sesame street magazine sooooooooo badly.
    Today, I look back and laugh. Learning not to whine about things in the grocery store is SUCH an important lesson to learn for the sake of EVERYONE’s sanity, and really, there was no other way I was going to learn it.

    • It’s possible you wouldn’t have learned any other way. But I’ve seen other ways work with kids. Whining drives me nuts. I’ve tried (4 y.o. and up) “When you whine, it upsets me, and it’s hard for me to listen to you.” “Could you please ask in a normal voice?” “Is there a better way you could ask me?” and if the answer is still no, I stay firm. “Thank you for asking so nicely. We can’t this time, but your polite tone makes it more likely another time.” Plus maybe acknowledging why it’s important to them and/or thinking of a compromise.
      With my 2 y.o. I’ll say something like “Oh that whining hurts my ears!” or “I can’t understand when you whine.” and then “Did you remember to say please?” and then if the answer is still no I explain as best I can in one sentence, check for understanding, and then try to distract with something else they find positive.

  15. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read right now! I am struggling to get my 3 year old to do what I want/need him to do. There are times when I just give up. . . This is great advice, thank you!

  16. A fresh perspective: I came from parents who did the exact opposite of this.

    My parents thought that all kids should listen to their parents all the time and that kids shouldn’t need a reason. I was often punished for asking why. My dad did the whole “be firm and don’t bribe” thing and it never worked. They resorted to spanking, which also didn’t work (it still baffles me that people think it *does* work) and it escalated into horrific arguments and fights.

    I lost respect for my dad when I was 11 and started turning to my friends’ parents for advice about stuff. My dad did not think children had rights and expected me to just do what he said all the time. It made me hate him.

    Our relationship is better now (though still strained) but he’s tried to convince me that his way of parenting is just and righteous and I keep telling him to his face that I will NEVER do to my children what he and my late mother did to me growing up.

    Children need to develop critical thinking skills, respect for a parent’s desires, and individuality. You can’t expect them to be drones that do what you say without any sort of explanation and I think many older parents still try to do this.

  17. One of the things that I don’t see mentioned is finding out why the kiddo doesn’t want to clean up. Part of compromise at my house involves coming up with a solution to their why too. My toddler doesn’t communicate much verbally, but I can tell when they are really proud of something they’ve built. When they resist putting their blocks away, compromise generally looks like “we’ll put your really awesome construction on the table where no one can step on it, but the rest of the blocks go in the container” and generally my toddler is down for that and is ready to help.

    Also, if I phrase anything “can you help me…” it gets my toddler moving. My kiddo loves to help and feel like a big kid right now.

    Another thing I find helps (which I learned from working with 3-5 year olds for almost 5 years) is laying out the order of things, like: we’re going to go outside, but first we need to change your diaper, get you clothes, and put our shoes on. My kiddo hates sitting still for a diaper change (but isn’t ready to potty train) but by making it part of the process to do something they want to do is suddenly acceptable and they’ll find the changing mat and diapers for me!

    We also have a fairly regular schedule (not necessarily times, but at least order) so my kiddo knows when transitions are coming because we get up every day, have breakfast every day, play inside for a bit every day, diaper change if needed, go outside, etc. That really seems to help a lot to quell any refusals. The days we struggle are when we have an early appointment, or our schedule gets thrown off by some other event.

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