Getting Children to Dress Themselves

Getting a youngster to dress is a challenge for many parents, as this communication to me describes:

I’m having a problem dressing my five-year-old son. He often takes a very long time to get dressed in the morning. We give him 20 minutes, which we know is ample because when he’s motivated he can do it in 3 minutes flat. Yet 20 minutes later he’s still only half dressed, having been distracted by toys, books, a dripping faucet, an ant on the floor, or just about anything. This behavior is making my husband late for work every morning. We’ve tried taking the offending toy or book away from him, but we can’t take away the world.

When I talk with him about coming up with possible solutions, all he says is “I don’t know” or suggests unreasonable solutions like having me come in every minute to remind him. (I’m doing that already and it’s not helping!) He’s even suggested that I yell at him. He did suggest letting him eat breakfast first before getting dressed, but it didn’t help. He’d eat and then waste time afterward. I’ve pointed out that his behavior is Level B, and by doing so he’s asking to be bossed. His response is that he wants to be bossed. So now what? How do I get someone to want to move beyond Level B?

My response to the parent follows:

As you indicated, continued operation on Level B indicates the need for using authority. Since you have already explained this to your son, emphasize that his not getting dressed indicates that he’s not acting in a mature way and that you’ll have to direct him until he can raise himself up to a higher level. Let him know that you know that he is capable of doing this himself. However, as a mother you must be consistent in how you deal with him.

Unless he takes responsibility for acting his age, you will have to teach him how to dress as if he were a three- or four-year-old. This means that you will lead him around through all the steps just as you would a much smaller child. But you will also have to treat him in other ways such as using a high chair and having him play in a crib as younger children do. Give him a day to think about how he wants to be treated and then follow up on his decision. (Psychologists refer to this approach as paradoxical in that the choice offered is not the one the client—think youngster here—would choose.)