Q&A: is this 3-year-old spoiled?

Ellie writes:

"I have a 3 year old son who I'm afraid might be spoiled. He certainly thinks he runs things around here, and to be honest he's so darn cute that we tend to give him his way.  In general it's not a problem, but I'm worried about two things: he's very picky in his eating, and sometimes his bossiness becomes annoying and rude.  I'm not sure what's normal for a 3 year old testing his limits, and where we should start to draw the line (and how!).

First, his eating. He eats fruit (berries, mostly), apple cinnamon cheerios, bacon, pepperoni and sausage off the top of pizza, McDonald's nuggets (but no other nugget-like food), and grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes a muffin. Maybe some pretzels or popcorn. There are foods he used to eat, like mac 'n cheese, spaghetti, or yogurt that he won't eat any more. We tried the "just one bite" plan, where we made him take one bite of what we were eating; that was a fight every night with over 30 horrible minutes of crying and bribing.  We're now giving him only a plate of whatever we have for dinner (he can still have what he likes for other meals), plus a couple of strawberries. So far, after a month, he still hasn't touched anything other than the berries. He's polite about it, though, waving his hand over and saying, "no, thank you, mommy". How can we get him to eat other things?

On the behavior front, he runs the house. If we don't put what he want on TV, or if we want to go out when he wants to stay home, or if Daddy gets him up in the morning and Mommy wants to stay in bed, or if something isn't done in the exact way he wants it, he gets mad. He doesn't throw a tantrum, but there's endless whining and screaming. How can we take control of the day? Is putting him in time out for screaming or the very hard-to-define "whining voice" effective?

I suspect the two issues might be connected, that he wants to be in control. But, seriously, how much more control can an only child 3 year old want? Any suggestions are welcome!"

I think you're absolutely correct in diagnosing this as a control issue. Control is the name of the game for this age, as is categorization. The categories, at least where food is concerned, seem to be "Yes" vs. "No."

His food preferences (or lack thereof) are normal (annoying, but normal) for this age. Read this post, and the comments, and then the Finslippy post (and hundreds! of comments from people with the same problem) someone referenced in the comments, and you may even start to feel better about your little pepperoni consumer. (And at least he's polite when he turns down everything but the berries.)

But I'm guessing that his eating isn't really what you're worried about. You say "he runs the house" and "How much more control can a 3-year-old want?".  So I'm guessing that you're worried that you're totally falling down on the job and are creating a monster by giving in to his cute little face.

Well, I'm not going to go all Supernanny on you and tell you to just lay down the law and haul out the Naughty Chair (full disclosure: I've never seen the show, so I'm just repeating what I've overheard on the playground). But I am going to say that you need to draw your line in the sand now and start enforcing or else it's going to get worse and worse until one day you wake up and are buying him a pony (or a golden goose) to get him to do his homework.

I think the problem is probably getting worse because he's trying to test boundaries (the normal developmental task of the three-year-old) but there aren't really any to test. Even if there are in your mind, you're not enforcing. So he just keeps pushing harder, waiting to find something to push against.

You can see where I'm going with this: Set up some boundaries.

There are probably dozens and dozens of things that you honestly don't care about. That's fine. In fact, it's great, because then he can assert control in those areas and it's perfectly fine. (Some examples from my life: I don't care what El Chico wears, as long as it fits and is reasonably weather-appropriate. So he walks around in some rather stunning combinations that he thinks are cool. I also don't care if he colors all over himself with marker or cuts scrap paper into piles of snippets or runs around in his pajamas all day inside the house.) What you need to do is decide with your partner which things are not negotiable, and then don't back down. (Examples from my life of things that don't fly ever: Rudeness to adults, running into the street, loudness in restaurants or other public places, hurting your sibling or other people or animals, screaming inside the house.) If one of those things happens, it just stops immediately. No negotiation, no "I want you to," just "We don't do that" or "That doesn't happen" and then immediate removal from the situation (or confiscation of the toy, etc.). Once you've done it a few times, he will recognize that you aren't playing around and he needs to follow those rules.

The tricky part at this age is that a 3-year-old is beginning to learn about social customs and politeness and socialization. So there are situations in which he'll have to learn the code and that he needs to compromise. If you think of it more as a teaching situation than as a discipline situation it might help you work your way through it intellectually and emotionally.

Let me give an example: Son wants to watch one thing on TV, which partner wants to watch something else. You can approach this as "Grown-up always trumps," and that's fine if you want it to be a static rule that's always followed. But if you want to use this as a way to teach your son fluency in social conventions and negotiation, walk him through the steps of weighing both sides. Maybe your son picked the previous show, so now it's someone else's turn to choose. Maybe partner wants to watch this specific program but will allow your son to choose the next one. Maybe your son wants to watch the thing he always watches right before he goes to bed, but you want to watch the Olympics, so you explain that the Olympics are only on for two weeks every four years, so you have to watch them while you can. This isn't bargaining per se, although it does teach some of the same skills that will be useful in bargaining. It's weighing options and coming up with solutions that are equitable. He won't always like the compromise, and will probably try to get you to accede to his wishes, but that's where you just have to stand firm.

A confession tangent: I think time-outs are bullshit ineffective as punishment, because it's extremely hard to make them a real punishment (unless you have a completely unfurnished room to put your child in for time-out). (I also think there's a lot to Dr. Lawrence Cohen's theory--in the stellar book Playful Parenting-- that much misbehavior comes from feeling disconnected and not knowing how to verbalize that, so disconnecting your child even more by separating them is actually making the problem worse in the long run.) However, I think timeouts can be extremely effective as discipline techniques. It's a great way to separate a kid from a bad situation (like two kids fighting), break a bad cycle (like the arguing or whining or sreaming or sobbing cycle kids can get themselves into), give you time to figure out an appropriate punishment or course of action or confer with your partner, or just get a kid out of your sight for a few minutes so you don't go completely postal and do something you'll regret.

So I'm going to suggest not framing discipline for screaming or whining or resisting as time-outs, but telling him "We don't scream/whine in the house. If you want to use that kind of voice, go into your room and do it," and then propel or carry him into his room and keep putting him back there until he stops screaming or whining. It's going to be labor intensive the first few days you have to do it, and it's going to suck, but once he figures out that not only won't he get his way by screaming or whining but that you guys don't really seem to care about the show business, he may wise up and decide to redirect his energy.

Incidentally, the conventional wisdom that you pretend not to understand a whining voice and keep saying "I can't understand you when you whine. Talk in your normal voice," has worked like a charm for us, so it's worth a try.

I think all of us are worried at one time or another that we're raising some kind of anti-social little freak who will end up playing us, having no friends, and having real problems (and possibly being the puppetmaster behind a presidential administration someday). I doubt that's the case with your son (and you may feel waaaay better about things if you can get hold of a copy of Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy by Ames and Ilg, which includes, among other things, the little factoid that many three-year-olds don't like to leave the house, which relieved my mind at one point). But if you're worried that he's actually running things, sit down and define where your boundaries are and what you want to teach him about control and limits, and then stand firm. If you're tempted to back down, think about how much worse it's going to be if he's still whining to get his way at the age of 5. Oy.

Good luck. And don't forget to write down the hilarious things he says when you're disciplining him so you can read them and laugh all over again in a few years.