How can we help our four year old do things for himself?

Q. My four-year-old son is very lazy about doing basic tasks such as dressing himself and is happy for me to do everything for him. When I try to get him to put his clothes on, he will moan and say he is tired or “can’t do it” and then it can end in a row between us. Even getting him to put on his shoes and coat when leaving the home involves more nagging. Admittedly, to save time and tantrums I end up doing most of this for him. I know he can do these tasks if he puts his mind to it, as he has done them in the past and at certain times. However, I appreciate that he finds some tasks hard such as doing buttons or belts and thus gets easily frustrated and avoids doing them. He is so different than his six-year-old sister who does everything for herself and arrives out of her room fully dressed in the morning and has done so since before she was four. He is due to start school in September (after a year in Montessori pre-school this year) and I don’t want this to hold him back in any way. Aside from these difficulties he is a delightful fun boy who is full of chat through the day and can be very sensitive and caring.

A. Helping young children take responsibility for basic self-care tasks such as dressing and eating is not only important for busy parents who need their children to help out, but is also important to children in developing their self-esteem and independence as well as teaching them key skills that will help them in school and other social arenas. However, while some children are keen to practise these tasks readily, others are less motivated and avoid them at all costs. In responding as a parent, you want to avoid getting into a counterproductive battle of wills and, instead, find positive ways of encouraging them to learn.

Understand your son’s ability
In helping your son, it is important to take a step back and to understand what is at issue for him and ensure that he does not have a specific difficulty other than motivation. It could be that he finds some elements of the basic tasks difficult such as the fine motor movements necessary to do buttons or the sequencing involved in pulling up trousers.

It might be useful to check in with his Montessori teacher over the summer who should be able to give you feedback on his areas of strength and weakness and also strategies to help him learn. Sometimes you can help him master these skills in other motivational arenas. For example, he might be motivated to learn fine motor skills squeezing a squirter gun or doing a physical puzzle (eg closing locks on a board) or putting a Lego model together of his favourite dinosaur. The Montessori teacher should be able to advise you or refer you to other services if needed.

Tune into your son’s motivation
As you suggest, the core issue is likely to be motivation. As a young boy he may be more interested in playing all the time and getting dressed in the morning is simply not on his agenda. This sounds like a distinct contrast to his sister who might enjoy choosing and putting on clothes, and who is very motivated to get the job done and to display her finished work to everyone.

You can increase your son’s motivation by encouraging him to choose his clothes the night before and/or allowing him to select clothes that reflect his interests such as a Spiderman shirt or dinosaur shoes.

Alternatively, you can increase his motivation by making dressing linked to other things he enjoys, for example, establishing a rule that he has to be dressed before he comes down to play or by creating a formal reward chart around dressing (see below) that allows him gain a reward for participating in dressing.

Breaking tasks down into small steps
When teaching a pre-schooler a new task, probably the most helpful thing you can do is to break the task down into its component parts. For example, the task of dressing can be divided into steps such as (1) taking off pyjamas, (2) putting T-shirt on, (3) putting trousers on, (4) doing buttons, (5) socks and (6) shoes.

Identify the steps that your child finds easiest and those that are hardest. For example, your son might be able to take his pyjamas off or put his shirt on but need help with pulling up trousers or doing buttons.

During the morning routine, sit with him while he dresses but only ask him to do the steps he finds easiest, giving him space to attempt each task and loads of praise as he completes them. Let him try some of the harder tasks but subtly assist him before he is frustrated. Your son is likely to be motivated by specific praise for each step he completes – “Oh, you got your T-shirt on” or by simply having your positive attention while he dresses.

Use creative, fun ideas to motivate your son
In motivating your son, it can be really helpful to do up an attractive chart with your son which displays the steps of dressing in picture form. Allow your son to get a star for each step completed, and special big stars for steps that require a bit more effort. You can also try to motivate your son by including as much fun as possible in the process.

Depending on what might engage him, perhaps you could play music in the room or chat with him about his favourite toy while he dresses. You can turn dressing into a fun game, by hiding his clothes around the room so he has to find them in sequence or using a timer and seeing if he can beat the clock to put his T-shirt on or set up a competition to to see if can put his trousers on before you do the same with teddy.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.