Getting out the door with kids in tow can be the most stressful part of the day for many families. And the younger the children are, the more difficult it can be to go anywhere, not because they don’t want to but because transitions are difficult for them and because it often becomes a power struggle when it doesn’t need to. We have an outside schedule we need our children to fit into, and we can easily slip into bad habits that just make it harder to leave the house.
In a nutshell, the key to getting out of the house with young children is to encourage them children to think. Instead of telling them what to do, ask them questions and make observations.
#1 – Start by presenting the goal as a fact
Example: “We are leaving the house soon to go pick up your brother.”
If your child is not excited about the destination and won’t be internally motivated to leave when it’s time, establish the point in time at which you will stop and get ready to leave by setting a timer, and letting them know that you set it and that when it rings it will be time to go.
Pay attention to when it will ring and prepare yourself mentally to resist your instincts to tell them what to do.
#2 – Ask them questions and make observations.
Instead of telling them what to do, start asking questions and give your child room to think.
Don’t say: “There’s the timer. It’s time to go. Put on your shoes. Here’s your jacket.”
Ask: “What does the timer mean?” When they answer something like it’s time to leave, ask them “What should we do next?” If they say put on their shoes, affirm them and then ask them where their shoes are “That’s right, can you find them?”
If they say they don’t know (what to do next), ask them a question they can answer easily. Sometimes I will pick up something they need to take and say “Do you need this?” They almost always smile and say yes and take it. It’s an easy victory, and the confidence builds as they make a string of decisions that leads to the goal of getting in the car and leaving the house.
You can also provide information and make observations such as, “Oh, it’s cold, I’m going to wear my jacket.” When I say that, my boys will each jump up and go to get theirs too. (Except for the one that likes to be different, then it will depend on his mood!)
#3 – If they have an outburst, instead of objecting, validate their feelings first.
The easiest way to do this is to repeat back to them what they told you but not word for word. If your child is disappointed or having trouble stopping, say something understanding “Oh, you’re having fun with your cars and you don’t want to stop” and then ask them a question “What should we do?” I have frequently been surprised at the answers I’ve gotten to this question since I started asking it. My boys will often think of a good, perfectly acceptable solution, such as bringing one toy in the car or playing with them when we return home. If their solution is not an option, such as bringing legos in the car, a good approach is to state a fact. For younger children it helps to encourage them in their effort to solve the problem. “Oh, legos don’t leave the house. But that was a good idea, what else could we do?”
This honors their ability to contribute meaningfully, to solve problems, and to feel some ownership in what they do.
When they are leaving an activity they enjoy such as playing with toys, and going to do something less interesting, such as sitting in the car to do errands – this honors them as an individual who has their own opinions and preferences.
#4 – Adjust your strategy based on their age and temperament
For older children it works well to make observations. Just this morning I was backing out of the driveway and I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my 5 year old son sideways in the back seat of the van, with his feet up in the air enough for me to see them. Instead of saying “Why aren’t you sitting right?” or “Sit on your bottom!” I made an observation, I said “I can see your feet in this mirror.” Then I followed it up with “I shouldn’t see your feet, I should see your face!” Both of my boys laughed and my son righted himself and sat down correctly.
For younger children it works well to give them opportunities to help, such as carrying something out the door for you. Another useful strategy is to provide two choices, both of which are acceptable to you. “Do you want to bring your car or your bear?” “Do you want to wear your coat or carry it?” Both choices accomplishes getting them in the car, and for example bringing the jacket along.
It also really helps to know each of your children’s tendencies and gifting. The same approaches won’t work best with each child and that’s okay. This becomes more apparent as you have more children and you see how they respond differently to the same situation or to the same things that you say.
Bringing it all together
The key here is to treat your children with respect, and expect them to be intelligent and creative, and willing and able to help solve problems that involve them.
Sometimes we need to be gracious and patient, and allow our children to be children. And other times we need to raise our expectations and give our children a chance to surprise us and rise to the occasion.
For more on this topic, and lots of real-life examples, check out How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, especially chapter 4: “Encouraging Autonomy”. (This is an affiliate link, learn more here)