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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

With messy 4-year-old, take it 1 step at a time

By John Rosemond

Q. My 4-year-old is just plain messy. I expect her to help out around the house, and she does, but she rarely finishes a chore. If I ask her to pick up a room, for example, she will leave things on the floor. Having to constantly bring her back to the scenes of her crimes and finish her chores is driving me crazy. What can I do to get her to be more attentive and conscientious?

A. You need to start over on this project. Your frustration is knee-capping your ability to be an effective teacher, and it sounds to me like this is nothing more complicated than a 4-year-old who needs some help organizing her approach to tasks. Take your daughter into a room, and ask, "What needs to be done to straighten and clean this room?" Help her figure that out, then leave (hovering over a child who is doing a task stimulates either resistance or anxiety, neither of which are conducive to good performance). Tell her to call you when she's finished.

When she calls you, go back into the room and assuming she really didn't finish ask, "What did you tell me needed to be done that still isn't done?" Do this diligently, without getting upset, until she's doing a good job in that room. At that point, move to another area of the house. The general rule of thumb when teaching a new skill to a child this age: Take things one step at a time.

Q. Our 17-year-old is a perennial underachiever. He's had up and down grades all through school. Other than this one problem, he's a great kid respectful, sensitive, helpful, reasonably well-behaved. With graduation in a little over a year, we're starting to worry that he may not make it in the world. We've tried using every carrot and stick we could think of, but nothing has worked. He is currently making four F's. Our current tack is to do nothing, but simply tell him that the consequences of underachievement as an adult are going to be far worse than ours. Are we on the right track?

A. It seems to me that you're on no track at all that this train is derailed. If your son is like his generally near-sighted peers, he has no appreciation of the fact that Real Life is not going to put food on his plate (like you continue to do) if he doesn't accept and properly discharge his responsibilities. Talking yourselves blue in the face is not going to correct his myopia.

I'd simply tell him that the responsibility of doing his best in school is minor compared to the responsibilities involved in driving a car. For example, underachievement puts no one else's life at risk, but driving a car does. Since he can't deal with the lesser responsibility, you can no longer trust him with the greater responsibility. You'll let him drive again when his grades come up to par.

To drive the point home, no pun intended, I'd also take the door off his room, explaining, "You need to begin to get used to being homeless, because that's a distinct possibility in your life. Homeless people have no privacy, so neither will you until your grades come up."

If my experience serves me well, those two moves will put him in checkmate and he will begin doing, albeit slowly, what's necessary to get out of his predicament.