Five- and 6-year-olds are meant to test limits. As they work toward independence, they often practice at home (or the park or the mall). This is the stage where kids learn to articulate their thoughts and negotiate their needs. By 8 or 9, this will all be a thing of the past. For right now, channel every ounce of patience, choose your battles carefully, and express some empathy along the way.

Few things are more frustrating for tired moms than engaging in a negotiation with a small child when the clock is ticking away. When you have a lot to balance, loud demands for one more show, one less layer of clothing or an ice cream sundae for dessert can cause even the calmest mom to crack under pressure.

On the positive side, the fact that your child feels confident enough to negotiate with you over the minor details of life shows that she's becoming independent, working on problem-solving and learning to assert her needs. These critical skills will help your child advocate for her needs independently, resist peer pressure and find her way out of sticky situations in the future.

But for right now, it's just frustrating.

Children with authoritarian parents who don't allow room for choice tend to grow into overly compliant or overly argumentative teens, and children with passive parents fail to learn to negotiate at all because they always get what they want. The best strategy is to find the middle ground.

Set clear expectations

When parents set clear expectations for their children, children understand the rules. Take the time to explain your rules and expectations to your kids. Review them often. Create a family rules poster together. The more you reinforce your expectations, the more your children will internalize them.

Offer reasonable choices

Give two reasonable options before you make lunch and allow your child to make the decision.

When children feel like they have no control over their lives, they find small ways to gain control. Giving them the power of choice teaches them to think about the pros and cons of each choice and make an independent decision. It also helps them feel like they do have some control. If your child often negotiates with food, give two reasonable options before you make lunch and allow your child to make the decision. If your child negotiates cold weather clothing, have more than one jacket or layering option available.

Plan ahead

Take note of the specific situations that cause your child to test limits and plan accordingly.

If your child tends to start negotiating or testing limits the minute you have to leave the house, plan for extra time. Kids tend to follow behavioral patterns. Take note of the specific situations that cause your child to test limits and plan accordingly. That might mean stashing a small coloring book and a few crayons in your purse for car rides and medical appointments to avoid limit testing out of boredom or it might mean getting shoes and socks on fifteen minutes before you need to leave the house to avoid running late. Get to know the times that your child tends to negotiate and/or test limits so that you can be prepared.


From the moment our babies become toddlers, we start pushing them toward independence. We teach them to put on shoes, get dressed and eat independently. But we don't give them a lot of freedom to make their own decisions. It's confusing and frustrating. Empathize with your child. Let her know that you understand that rules can be frustrating but that you have to keep her safe. Give her the opportunity to think of a few new rules that might be helpful for the family. When we let our children know that we understand that it's hard to be little, we set the stage for honest communication and unconditional love and support. And that is all they truly need.

More on preschoolers

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The right way to praise your children
How to teach assertiveness skills to your kids