Dear Bracha,

My eldest son, who is almost six, wakes up much earlier than my younger son, almost four. The older one wants my attention just when I need to start my day and prepare food for breakfast and lunch. Then, when it's time for my younger son to wake, the older one wants to play with him, and often they begin to fight. I get no cooperation from him, which means no cooperation from my younger son, who is fond of imitating his big brother. I hate having to raise my voice before leaving the house instead of spending it happily with my children. Additionally, I am often late to work. Any suggestions?

Worn-out Single Mom

Dear Single Mom,

You obviously have your hands full, and with no backup at home you are at a two-against-one disadvantage. However, as you explained, your older son is the focal point of this problem.

Attention is what every child wants, and they are willing to do almost anything to get it. It is a subconscious need that compels your son to act the way he does. The good news is that it is perfectly normal, but the trick is how to get him to act in a more "helpful" way.

We, adults, are driven by time. We have jobs, carpools and commitments. Children, on the other hand, are completely oblivious to all this. Time, and the pressure you feel in the morning, means nothing to your son. You must cast away any negative feelings that place the situation in the realm of deliberate non-cooperation. Instead, look at the situation from an attention/fun point of view – your child's view. The fact that he is willing to wake up early to spend extra time with you bespeaks his need strongly. I would suggest that you must satisfy his need, but on your terms.

So how do you give your child the attention he craves, on your terms, and still get out the door on time? You have several options. The key is to remember the definition of attention – Touch, Talking and Eye Contact. Provide attention to give positive reinforcement, and withhold attention to discourage behavior. But what we are really talking about is to add it at crucial times to increase cooperation and keep your older son engaged. He wants to be with you; messing around with his little brother is just a way to get you to focus on him again. Inevitably you will start talking with him to get him to stop – that's attention. (And P.S. – do not give rewards such as candy and gifts,, for good behavior. They are bribes and set a bad precedent. Extra rewards for good behavior should be hugs, kisses, high fives, extra songs or stories, etc.)

Suggestions for increasing positive interactions include:

  • He can help you make the lunches. Keep up a positive conversation with him as he assists.
  • Play music, and sing with him as you work.
  • Get him to help dress and take care of his little brother with your guidance. The three of you will be in the room together, instead of leaving him "out" of the interactions.
  • Make games to get your sons though some moments of the morning. Racing the "clock" is a good one. A task needs to be done, such as dressing, and you count while they dress to see how "fast" they can do it.

This little guy, this almost six-year-old, is now your best helper. He is capable of a lot when he is working alongside you. This will benefit him tremendously because you will be giving him justifiable praise for real accomplishments, and this is what leads to true self-esteem! You will let him know that you are so grateful for him because he is such a good help to you and takes such great care of his younger brother.

In the bedtime Shema, some people include the request: "…establish thou for us the work of our hands, the work of our hands establish thou it." Why is it so important that the phrase is repetitive? One of the answers is because every person, even a very young one, feels that their efforts are worthwhile when appreciated. Your son is waiting to help you with everything. He just needs a little instruction, and with a few fun games, he is going to do a great job!

You are on the cusp of discovery with your young sons, about to bond on a whole new level. Enjoy the journey. Wishing you and your family all the best!