The Barney Cure:
A Cooperation Technique for Preschoolers

By Nicky VanValkenburgh

Every parent has dealt with a preschooler who won’t cooperate. They’re crying, screaming, kicking, waving their arms, or dropping to the ground and refusing to walk. Parents and preschoolers have two different agendas. Your preschooler wants to play, watch TV, color with crayons, or whatever. As a parent, you have to be somewhere in 15 minutes, or you’re running late. If you’re not going somewhere, it might be the child’s naptime or bedtime… whatever the reason, you need to come up with a game plan—and fast— to get the child to cooperate. You must gain control of this situation, before stress and anxiety gets a hold of you.

BarneyEvery mother and father has been there, done that. Our life is anything but a Barney episode. We all know that purple dinosaur on TV is nothing but a fairy tale. On TV, Barney is surrounded by happy little children who smile, laugh and do things on cue. When given instructions, they listen carefully and obey, the first time they’re told. In reality, our children do the opposite. Not all the time, but yes, some of the time, children act like wild animals.

We could respond with anger. We could threaten, raise our voice, tell the child to shape up, or even spank the child. In my experience, these methods are counterproductive.

We could respond with well-crafted arguments and logical reasons. A simple explanation, (such as “the library closes in 45 minutes, so we better hurry”) means nothing to your preschooler. They have no concept of time or space. What seems logical to us often makes no sense to them. Reasoning with your preschooler simply does not work.

There’s a different way to get their attention. It’s utterly amusing to them. It causes them to completely forget their focus. In fact, it brings them to your focus. Use this technique and they will cooperate with you. It makes them giggle. It changes their state from angry to happy, sadness to happiness, or tears to laughter.

What technique am I talking about? Distraction. You can get a preschooler’s attention with distraction. It sounds crazy, but it works every time.

You can distract a child by singing a song, making a silly face, pretending to be a cartoon character, or dancing with them. Be spontaneous, creative and corny (if you must.) Let me share some examples. A friend of mine has a three-year-old boy who refuses to eat his dinner. She pretends the spoon is an airplane zooming into his mouth. Another friend struggles to get her 2-year-old into bed. To remedy the situation, she invented a “towel toss” game. All of a sudden, the youngster wants to go to bed, as this means being swung back and forth in a towel, and plopping into bed.

I’ll never forget the time my three-year-old pitched a fit about going home from vacation. He loved the hotel and suggested that we live there forever. He loved the breakfast that the chefs made. He loved having his bed made with a chocolate on the pillow. He loved the fresh towels in the bathroom. Of course, we eventually had to go home. On the drive back, my son fell asleep in the car. When he awoke, we were parked in the garage. We were home. That’s when the trouble started. My son started screaming and shaking his fists. He demanded that we return to the hotel.

I tried to reason with him. I told him to calm down and get a grip on himself. “We couldn’t stay at the hotel forever,” I explained. “Our vacation was fun, but we had to come home.” In response, my son wailed even louder, “Take me back to the hotel....NOW!”

I managed to distract him by pointing to his bare feet, and singing a song called “Hey, Mr. Barefooty.” It was a variation of Barney’s “Hey Mr. Knickerbocker” Yes, I made up the song on the spot, and it worked like a charm. Before my eyes, my son’s expression completely changed. He stopped crying and started laughing. In fact, he danced into the house.

Maybe Barney is smarter than we give him credit for. That’s why children on his TV show are so happy and well behaved. Barney charms kids into obedience. He distracts them from the ills of life, and makes them smile and laugh with delight. As parents, we can do the same. The next time your preschooler won’t cooperate, try the Barney cure.

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