How to argue with a preschooler (and win)

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Mum Claudia sighed as her three-year-old daughter stood in the hall naked. It seemed like this morning, no amount of explanation was going to convince her little girl that she couldn't leave the house with no clothes.

"So I stood next to her and started taking off my clothes," says Claudia, from Sydney. "When I was in just undies, I picked up my bag and the keys and said, 'OK, let's go out'."

Her daughter squealed in horror and went to get dressed. Claudia had won… thank goodness.

"I'm not sure how far I was willing to go," she says.

As a parent of a preschool-age child, this might sound familiar. You probably spend most of your waking hours debating, negotiating and answering questions. Your little politician argues about everything, from what's for breakfast to why it's absolutely, completely fine for them to go the shops wearing Batman pyjamas and a Superman cape.

"Around the ages of three, four and five, children are starting to develop a sense of self," explains Sonja Walker, director of Kids First children's services . "One of the challenges is that while they can be quite assertive about their independence, they don't necessarily have the ability to see the big picture."

So, here are a few expert tips on how to deal with an argumentative young child… with your dignity intact.

1. Acknowledge the question

Does it feel like every time your child asks a question, you get lured into a never-ending rabbit hole of more questions?


Nobody wants to crush a child's curiosity, but it's important to limit debate both for your sanity and for your child's friendships, says Sonja Walker.

Often, arguments start because a child feels ignored, she says. Her advice is, acknowledge their question, give a short and simple answer, then divert them onto something else.

If they can't move on, tell them to wait until 'question time', adds Dr Kimberley O'Brien, principal child psychologist at The Quirky Kid Clinic. Put a red blob on the clock to show when it starts, then let your child let fire until the time is up.

2. Look for a win-win

A study of German children playing a zookeeping board game found that even five year olds gave more two-sided reasoning when their goal was to find the best home for all the animals, rather than house all the animals on their side of the board.

But what does that mean when your three-year-old child is refusing to go out?

It's all about using words that suggest cooperation, and offering some kind of consolation, says Sonja Walker. "You might say, 'I know you want to keep playing with your Lego, but we need to leave for Grandma's house. Let's save that Lego, and the minute we get back from grandma's house you can play with it again.'"

How you say things matters too, says Kimberley O'Brien. "Bring your voice down, soften it, because if you push against them they'll push harder against you."

3. Predict the fights

If there are always tussles over teeth-brushing, getting dressed or going out, spend five minutes preparing your child for the transition.

How? Visual schedules work in childcare settings across the country, says Sonja. Draw the things you need your child to do, or prepare pictures you can stick on a board with Velcro, so they can see what's coming next.

A brief 'heads-up' can help at bedtime, too, adds Kimberley. "If they're just asking questions for the sake of staying up late, then I'd wrap it up with, 'OK, one more question, then we're done'."

4. Find out if it's a problem

Arguing is common to most preschoolers. But if your child argues all the time and it's vindictive, makes daily life a misery or creates problems with peers, there may be a problem, such as oppositional defiance disorder.

Sonja suggests talking to a preschool teacher or any other professional who sees your son or daughter regularly. "Sometimes the strategies early educators use to get around your feisty or somewhat controlling child might be ones you can use at home with consistency and success," she says.

5. Know when to give in

You're not creating a defiant child just because you occasionally let them go out dressed as Batman. It's about having reasonable limits within which little kids can channel their curiosity and sense of self.

Sometimes, you have to credit your child's thinking – as discovered the parents of Audrey, four, from Sydney.

They were in the car playing a game of categories, and it was Audrey's turn to name a type of drink. "Wee," she announced.

Her dad told her that people don't drink wee, but the more he explained, the more Audrey grew furious. "You do if you've gone for a walk in the desert and forgotten your drink bottle!" she eventually shouted.

"Audrey won," says her mum, "and from now on, urine is an officially accepted 'drink' in our family."

After all, you're not creating a defiant child just because you occasionally give in. It's about having reasonable limits within which kids can channel their curiosity and sense of self – and cherishing the non-stop talking while it lasts.