ASK EMORY: “Listen to me!”


Dear Emory,

I have a little girl who is 4-years-old. Today we were walking home from the library, and she kept stepping into the street. I warned her to stay on the sidewalk, and I even yelled at her; but she still didn’t stop. I’ve given her timeouts for this before, but she isn’t learning that she has to listen to me. So, now what do I do? How can I make her do what I say, especially when it’s a matter of common sense and safety?

“Helpless on Holly”

Dear “Helpless,”

From your description, it sounds like your little girl is growing up! Her brain is busy learning, her body is growing bigger, and her will is becoming stronger, too.

And as she is growing, “Helpless,” as you are discovering the very real limits to being a parent. Your little girl may think you are the smartest and strongest man in the world, but that doesn’t mean she will always listen to you or do what you tell her to—even when you want to keep her safe from harm.

Fortunately, there are some very good ways to teach your daughter to listen and cooperate more.

But first, you’ll have to consider giving up some widely held, but off-the-mark ideas about how children learn. Yelling, threatening, and punishing don’t work. This is because yelling is intimidation. Threatening invokes fear. And punishing is meant to be hurtful. All three are miserable ways to teach anybody anything. And, as you’ve been noticing, they don’t work well. This approach is not how your daughter will learn to be safe, cooperative or respectful

Like most four-year-olds, your daughter is very interested in learning how to be more independent and discovering what the boundaries are to her independence. Thus, for young children, testing limits is the most sensible way for them to figure out what-to-do and what-not-to-do. When she ignores your warnings and challenges your limits, she isn’t challenging you personally. She simply enjoys learning about the real world in the most real way—through her own personal experience.

As a father, you can teach your daughter to respect your warnings and stick to your limits when you allow her to experiment and experience for herself what-she-can-do and what-she-cannot-do. Of course you wouldn’t let her get hit by a car in the street to learn her lesson. But you can create a learning experience for her that is safe and sensible. “Sensible” is the key word here. If her learning experience doesn’t make sense to her as well as to you, she won’t learn the lessons you are teaching.

Start with what you already know about your daughter. You know she likes her independence and you know she is interested in testing the “Walk on the Sidewalk Limit.” So next time you head out for a walk, plan to bring the stroller. Then you can matter-of-factly offer your daughter two choices: “You can walk safely on the sidewalk or you can ride in your stroller. You choose.”

Both options provide her with useful lessons to learn. If she chooses to walk with you on the sidewalk, she learns it-works-to-stay-on-the-sidewalk when she wants to enjoy walking independently. If she chooses to test the limits and step into the street, she learns it-does-not-work-to-walk-in-the-street when she loses her independence and must ride in the stroller the rest of the way home.

Your daughter is also learning a valuable lesson about respect when you quickly follow through and put her in the stroller immediately as soon as she defies the limit by stepping off the curb. Parents rarely recognize how they lose their children’s respect by giving warning after warning and threat after threat. If you don’t seem to take your own words seriously, how will your children learn to take you seriously?

Is your daughter likely to fuss and cry when you put her in the stroller? Of course. Her ‘experiment’ of testing the limit didn’t go well for her. She’s unhappy with the result, as she lets you know. Her complaints tell you that she is in the process of figuring out that testing the limit did-not-work. Her disappointment lets you know that she will likely remember this lesson the next time she has a choice to make about walking in the street.

To continue being kind, you won’t blame or shame your daughter for stepping into the street. Instead, you can let her know, “Sorry that didn’t go well for you. But you’ll have another chance to walk with me on the sidewalk tomorrow, and I’m guessing you’ll make a better choice then.”

This is a great moment to generously give yourself a pat on the back, too, “Hopeless.” It’s a very good feeling to successfully teach your daughter another good lesson about being safe, cooperative and respectful, and to do it so kindly and firmly.


Parenting-with-Courage-Cover-Just released! By Emory Luce Baldwin and PEP founder Linda E. Jessup. What passes for parenting “common sense” today often falls short of the mark. Many of the most common ways parents try to get kids to behave only adds to their stress and frustration, with little resulting improvement in children’s behavior. Now there is Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense, a book written to show parents what really works when it comes to raising children who grow up to be good people, not just good kids.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: