A Mother’s Brilliant Strategy for Dealing with Rebel Pre-schooler

In Very Special Episode 120 of the “Happier” podcast, Elizabeth and I discussed listeners’ question about the Four Tendencies. This was a real treat for me, because I love talking about this subject so much.

Starting at about minute 10:38, we discussed a question from Dawn, an Upholder who wanted tips for dealing more effectively with her daughter, a Rebel pre-schooler.

We talked about focusing on identity and on the information-consequences-choice sequence, which are the two main strategies of dealing more effectively with Rebels. A useful third option? Just doing nothing at all! Which is often the best solution.

After the episode aired, I was fascinated to get this follow-up email from Dawn, about how she changed her way of engaging with daughter, with great success.

Hi Gretchen,


Thank you SO much for addressing my question about my Rebel preschool daughter in episode 120 on the podcast! I was so delighted to hear my question made it in. (A friend actually texted me before I had a chance to listen to ask if I had sent in a question b/c it sound so much like my situation)


I wanted to send a quick update to let you know how much your advice has helped. I really have tried to embrace the idea that I CAN’T make her do anything. I can’t! She knows it, I know it, and it’s changed a lot of how I talk to her about things.  I make such an effort to make everything her choice. She can do it if she wants to, and if she doesn’t well then here’s what will happen. Very matter of fact, very calm, not punitive, just the facts.


Here’s an example of how I’ve changed my language.  She was looking at books on the couch and my parents were about to arrive for dinner. She had to wash up for dinner and I thought she should get it over with now, before the get here, to not miss the fun hellos. If I were speaking to my older daughter (tendency TBD but definitely not rebel) I would have said:


“You need wash up before dinner. Please go do it now so you won’t have to do it when Nanny and Poppy are here.”


I now know I would NEVER say that to the rebel. NEED to do something! HA! She would say. I don’t NEED to do anything.  I really thought for a minute and picked my words carefully.


“I’m going to ask you to wash up before dinner. Nanny and Poppy will be here soon. You can choose. You can go now and then you won’t have to do it when they’re here, or you can do it right before dinner, but then you’ll have to leave them to do it. Whatever you choose is fine with me. It’s your choice.” (I did in fact say choice that many times)


A minute after I left her I heard her little footsteps walking over to the sink. She was done right before they walked in the door and was THRILLED that she could say hello and chat and walk right over to the table.


I’ve also appealed to her sense of identity. She was hyper when we were visiting my frail old grandparents and I was truly afraid she was going knock one of them over. Telling her she HAS to stop running and calm down would have failed. I told her Grammie just got out of the hospital b/c she fell and she’s not sturdy on her feet yet and she needs her protectors. She needs the kids to be careful around her and protect her and make sure she doesn’t fall again. Success!  Or when she was sharing a room with her little cousin on vacation. Instead of you HAVE to be quite while he’s falling asleep I said, he’s younger than you and he’s so tired and needs to sleep. Will you be his helper? Will you help him go to sleep by ignoring him and letting him rest? She jumped at the chance.


Overall I would say part of the success has come from me changing my language and how I talk to her, but part of the success has also come from me changing my perspective and fully embracing that I can’t make her do things.


As an Upholder it’s also been freeing to let her help me break the rules a little. Like so what if we’re late? It was a self-imposed timetable, no one is counting on us. I’ve embraced her rebel-ness and this has allowed me see things differently. You’re so right. We’re free-er than we think!!!


Thank you so, so much.


I have to say, I’m constantly astonished by the subtlety and imagination people use in applying the Four Tendencies. Dawn asking her daughter if she’d like to be her great-grandmother’s “protector!” Her young cousin’s “helper!” Brilliant.

If Rebels are pushed to show you that “you’re not the boss of me, you can’t tell me what to,” they may seem wild, inconsiderate, irresponsible, unmanageable, in their desire to demonstrate their freedom. If they’re given the choice to act with consideration, love, protectiveness, self-interest, they may well choose to do so.

It’s also interesting to me to read that Dawn feels that she’s learned, as an Upholder, from the example of her Rebel daughter. As an Upholder myself, I’ve certainly gained tremendously from studying the Rebel perspective. We’re more free than we think.

I love hearing stories and examples of how people have put the Four Tendencies to work in their own lives. Henry James himself couldn’t invent such rich, creative examples of character in action. Keep them coming!

Don’t forget, if you’ve pre-ordered The Four Tendencies, you can get access to a very special pre-order bonus. This 5-part video series will help you to start harnessing the power of the Four Tendencies immediately. I explain how to harness the strengths—and manage the weaknesses—of each Tendency, whether at work, in relationships, as a parent or teacher, or as a health-care provider.


Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Chelsea Hill

    Gretchen – my current treat is to listen to all the episodes of “Happier” from start to finish! I’ve been writing down every ‘Know Yourself Better’ question in my journal; it has been helping me SO MUCH! Currently on the episode where you and Liz clean her closet.

  • Diane

    I can appreciate how Dawn’s approach could be helpful in the home. What I don’t understand is how this helps her daughter learn to cope out in the world. Something tells me that her teachers in school, or later in life, her boss in the workplace, won’t take the time to reframe their requirements of her.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a big challenge for Rebels – and for the people around Rebels.

      • Jess K

        I would say that if Dawn is able to give her young daughter perspective to consider others’ needs/motives (grandma needing protection, etc.), then she can certainly understand that other people don’t always see things the same way as she does… perfect opportunity to let kids understand the 4 tendencies early on to reduce the frustration later in life! If you raise your child using Dawn’s new strategies and tie in the fact that other people work differently, there is less need to be concerned about future expectations from bosses, teachers, etc. If we can “get it” and work with others’ tendencies as adults, then so can a child. Dawn’s child will cope BETTER than ever knowing that other people in the world are seeing the same situation differently. I only WISH my mother had shown me the “light” (the 4 ways of looking at any expectation) while I was in school. I would have been much less frustrated with some of my teachers! Either way, the real world has consequences for behaviors and so does Dawn’s new approach. I think rebels have underlying issues with one human attempting to demonstrate control/superiority over another human, so if they can see them as trying to enforce a rule simply for the “greater good”, then it no longer seems as if someone is merely trying to restrict their freedom… at least this is what helps me in the “real world”! Love the podcast Gretchen!!!

  • Patricia

    As a “perfect” Rebel (someone who scored perfect marks as a Rebel), I know that if someone invites me to come along, great. But if you try that “everyone else is going” guilt line, then it’s a money back guarantee I won’t be going along.
    Now that I understand my own Rebel tendencies, I understand why I like to be asked, and to make my own choices.
    On the job, I know I have things I have to do, but it’s my choice to stay and work here (or not). I also have control over exactly when I do them, as long as I meet my deadlines. It’s my choice to do my job well, too, so I meet my deadlines. That is how I make it as a Rebel in the workplace. I see Diane’s comment below and this is how we manage in the everyday world. Life is a series of choices for all of us, especially for Rebels.

  • Judy

    Brilliant mother! I suspect when her daughter gets older and has to deal with others her mother will help her reframe situations that have frustrated her so her daughter will be better able to deal with them in the future. For now, though, this is definitely a win-win for both mother and daughter. Thanks for the update, Gretchen.

  • Jacq

    As a mother to two four year olds, whose tendencies are TBC, I loved reading this. I particularly related to the part about acknowledging that the world doesn’t end if we don’t stick to my self-imposed schedule for the day. I’m also an Upholder, and I had to learn this lesson last year, when I realised that I was creating unnecessary stress in our daily life by chivvying along my children, when we didn’t really need to hurry. I know that, when they start school next year, the importance of getting out the door at a certain time will become more important, but for now, the only thing we HAVE to be on time for is doctors’ appointments – trips to friends’ houses, sessions at kindy, etc aren’t so urgent that the world will end if we’re a few minutes late.

    • gretchenrubin

      I do the same thing. Urge everyone to hurry, when there’s no need to hurry. A great reminder!

      • Jacq

        I’m glad it’s not just me! I eventually realised that I was prioritising my need to feel calm (by feeling like we were organised and on time) ahead of everybody else’s need to feel calm (but not feeling hassled by me all of the time). I also realised that I was probably being unrealistic, given that I was dealing with twin three year olds! 😀