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Your 5-year-old is probably well past the temper-tantrum stage (most of the time, at least). But she's not exactly obedient, either. In fact, she refuses to come to dinner when you call her, ignores your requests to pick up her socks, and teasingly rolls the soccer ball around on the kitchen floor despite your rule about playing ball in the house.
"So what's going on here?" you wonder. "Did I mess up somewhere along the way, or is my kid just out to get me?"
Believe it or not, you're probably doing fine. Frustrating as it may be, it's normal for kindergartners to test adult guidelines and expectations. At this age, "defiance is about finding a way to assert yourself," says Susanne Ayers Denham, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Unlike a younger child, your little rebel probably won't have a fit when you ask her to do something she dislikes. But she may pretend she didn't hear you or respond very s-l-o-w-l-y to your request. ("You mean, you wanted those socks picked up today?")
Be understanding. When you tell your kindergartner to come in for lunch and she yells, "Not now!" and then fumes when you make her come in anyway, try to put yourself in her shoes. Give her a hug and tell her you know it's tough to leave her friends, but lunch is ready.
The idea is to show her that instead of being part of the problem, you're actually on her side. Try not to get angry (even if the neighbors are checking out the show your 5-year-old is putting on). Be kind but firm about making your child come in when she must.
Set limits. Kindergartners need — and even want — limits, so set them and make sure your child knows what they are. Spell it out: "We don't eat in the living room" or "You must come in when I call you the first time."
If your youngster has problems abiding by the rules (as every 5-year-old will), work on solutions. Talk the situation out and try to get to the bottom of your child's defiance. Maybe she sneaks food out of the kitchen because she knows that you frown on snacking before dinner. In that case, she needs to hear that healthy snacks like fruit or cheese are okay.
Or maybe she'll admit that she fights getting dressed every morning because she's feeling burdened at school, she doesn't like her new teacher, or she's worried about the cliquish girls in her class. Once she knows that you're working with her to solve the problem, she's likely to tone down the attitude.
Reinforce good behavior. Though you may be sorely tempted to give your 5-year-old a verbal lashing when she defies you, hold your tongue. "When a child behaves badly, she already feels terrible," says Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline series of books. "Where did we ever get the idea that in order to make children do better, we first have to make them feel worse?" In fact, doing so may only produce more negative behavior.
Instead, try to catch your child acting appropriately and encourage her to continue. Remember, disciplining your kindergartner doesn't mean controlling her — it means teaching her to control herself.
Punishment might get her to behave, but only because she's afraid not to. It's best for your 5-year-old to do the right thing because she wants to — because it makes the day more fun for her or makes her feel good.
Still, let your child know that when she breaks a rule, there will be consequences. Be specific and logical rather than punitive: "If you play with the soccer ball in the house, we'll have to keep it in the garage."
Use time-outs — positively. When your kindergartner's ready to bust a gasket because she isn't getting her way, help her cool off. Rather than a punitive time-out ("Go to your room!"), encourage her to retreat to a comfy sofa in the den or to a favorite corner of her bedroom.
Maybe your child would even like to design a "calm-down place" for herself — with a big pillow, a soft blanket, and a few favorite books. If she refuses to go, offer to go with her to read or talk.
If she still refuses, go yourself — just to chill out. Not only will you set a good example, but you might get a much-needed break. Once you both feel calmer, that's the time to talk about appropriate behavior.
Empower your kindergartner. Try to provide opportunities for your 5-year-old to strut some of her cherished independence. Instead of demanding that she do her homework right after school every day, give her the choice of doing it then or right after dinner if your schedules permit. Ask if she'd like to have peas or green beans with dinner, or if she wants to rent a movie or a computer game for the weekend.
Another way to help your youngster feel more in control is to tell her what she can do instead of what she can't. Rather than saying, "No! Don't kick that ball in the house!" say, "Why don't you go outside and practice?"
Your child is old enough to understand explanations now, too, so tell her why it's not a good idea to kick a ball inside or why it's important to eat nourishing snacks instead of junk food.
Choose your battles. If your fashion-savvy kindergartner wants to wear a polka-dotted dress with wildly striped tights, what do you care? If she wants waffles for lunch and peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, what's the harm? Sometimes it's easier to look the other way — when she splashes in a mud puddle on the way home, for example, or stuffs her puppet under her bed instead of putting it on the proper shelf.
Compromise. Avoid situations that might spark your kindergartner's defiant streak. How realistic is to expect a 5-year-old to behave for more than an hour or so at your office? If she's got a new Barbie that she's loath to share, put it away before her cousins come over to play.
If you find yourself in a tricky situation, try to meet your child in the middle: "You can't chase Aunt Sarah's cat around, but maybe you can fill his food bowl." It's not 100 percent foolproof, but it's worth a try.
Respect her age and stage. When you ask your kindergartner to make her bed or sweep the porch, make sure she knows how. Take the time to teach her new tasks, and do them together until she really gets the hang of it. Sometimes what looks like defiance is simply the inability to follow through on an assignment that's confusing.
Finally, respect the unique world your 5-year-old lives in. Rather than expecting her to happily jump up from a game she's winning to come set the table, give her a few minutes' notice to help her switch gears. ("Shannon, we'll be eating in five minutes, so please finish up and set the table.")
She probably won't be overjoyed about having to leave the fun to fuss with forks — in fact, she's likely to grumble all the while. But as long as you're patient and consistent, your youngster will eventually learn that defiance isn't the way to get what she wants.