How to Help Your Kid Focus on Completing a Task

Dear Kid Whisperer,

How do I help my 3-year-old focus on completing a task (brushing teeth, getting clothes off or on, retrieving an object)? How do you teach attentiveness? -Faith, Riverside, California

Dear Faith,

A three-year-old not being able to complete simple tasks without support is normal and healthy because their brains don’t work yet. Lack of focus is normal for a three-year-old. It does not mean they have anything wrong with them. The trick is to support them in ways that:

  • Allow you to remain calm
  • Stimulate thinking (for your kid, not you)
  • Show your kid that the task at hand is their problem, not yours
  • Do not insult your kid’s intelligence
  • Assume cooperation on the part of your kid

Here’s where most parents go wrong: they do the thing that seems to make the most sense. If a kid who is supposed to be getting dressed instead starts staring at something shiny with their mouth open, the parent tells them to what to do:

“Put your clothes on.”

The problem with saying this is that it creates what psychologists call “psychological reactance”: when you tell someone to do something, it makes them feel bossed around, they feel a lack of control, and they become less likely to do the thing you told them to do, and they are also less likely to do things you ask in the future.

The result of telling kids what to do all day is that they become less and less cooperative and you become more and more frustrated with each additional demand. You then have to put additional energy into doing something (making demands) that is more ineffective the more you do it. Also notice that making demands accomplishes none of the five goals above. This dynamic creates needless power struggles and can sometimes lead to a lifetime of pain and unhealthy resistance to authority.

The alternative is to ask questions. Questions do not create psychological reactance. Questions allow you to remain calm because you are not owning your kid’s problems (as a parent, you probably have enough of your own), and you are not making the problem worse.

Here’s how I guided my own 3-year-old to put on her clothes, and how I would guide yours:

Kid Whisperer: (while putting on his own clothes after putting two of Kid’s outfits on the bed) Which of the outfits are you going to wear today?

Kid: (picking up an outfit) This one!

Kid then stares at the outfit as though he no longer knows what it is.

Kid Whisperer: (While still getting himself dressed as the first priority) What should you do now?

Kid: I should put this on!

Kid puts on his pants and then tries to fly his shirt like a kite.

Kid Whisperer: Where does that shirt go?

Kid: On my body, of course!

Kid puts on his shirt.

Kid: I need to put on my socks!

Kid Whisperer: Where are they?

Kid: Right here, silly!

Kid puts on his socks and then starts playing with a toy.

Kid Whisperer (while taking the toy): What’s next?

Kid: Shoes. I need shoes. Here they are. I can put them on, but I can’t tie them.

Kid Whisperer: Who could you ask to help you with that?

Kid: You?

Long Pause as Kid Whisperer smiles at Kid.

Kid: Can you please help tie my shoes?

Kid Whisperer ties Kid’s shoes, showing and telling how it is done in the process.

Kid Whisperer: Are you all dressed?

Kid: YES I AM!! I’m a big kid!

Notice that I did nothing but ask questions. Using questions to teach is called the Socratic Method. While it is often used to teach academics in school, it’s unfortunate that we forget to use it when teaching kids how to live.