What to Say to Your Kids Instead of “Hurry Up”…and Actually Get Them Out the Door
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I’ve tried it all: Timers, threats, games (“race you to the car!”), all an effort to get my preschooler out the door on time. But no matter what I try, the concept of “hurry up” still seems far from his grasp. (It doesn’t help that I feel triggered when I see the clock ticking and he’s still only got one shoe on.) So, what to do? I dialed Kristene Geering, director of education at the Parent Lab—a beloved resource for parental support—to find out a more effective approach.

Why “Hurry Up” Simply Doesn’t Make Sense to a Preschooler’s Brain

Namely, it won’t get you the results you want. “Brain development in very young children moves at a breakneck speed and it’s amazing,” Geering says. “But that front part of the brain takes a very long time to get everything online. It’s also the part of the brain that understands more abstract concepts, like time.”

This means that when you say, “Hurry! We have to be there in 15 minutes,” your child literally cannot process or understand what that means. (Some parents try to appeal to their kid’s sense of logic as an alternative, but the front part of the brain is in charge of that, too, Geering adds. In other words, it’s just not developed yet.)

What to Say (and Do) Instead

First of all, alter your expectations. “Expecting younger kids to hurry is honestly not developmentally appropriate,” she says. But when the rush is on, there are different word choices—and tactics—to use to help them get moving. Mainly, since time is an abstract concept, it can help to use visual and audio cues instead.

Instead of “we need to leave in 5 minutes, try: “We need to leave when this song is over.” (In this case, it’s best to choose a familiar song since they’ll have a better idea of how much time is actually left.)

Another approach is to use their excitement about what’s next as a way to nudge them to go faster. “The more you build the story as being something they really love as opposed to something undesirable, the better your chances are at getting things moving,” Geering says. Try, “Guess what? We’re going to get on the bus! Do you think we’ll see construction vehicles?” (Just be mindful not to include the words “if you hurry” since you don’t want your child to feel pressured. “Frame it as a win,” Geering says.)

As a last resort, make things playful—“race you to the car!”—for times when you really have to get moving. Geering also suggests playing “red light, green light” where you run as fast as you can on green. Or have everyone run to the lobby like gazelles. “The more you can turn transitions into something fun, the easier it will be to motivate your little one,” she says.

A Final Thought: Slow Down to Speed Up

At this age and stage, the world can feel like a lot to young children. “You’re tumbling through a world of experiences and sensations that are old hat to you, but to your child there are new and distracting things happening all the time,” Geering says. If you sense they’re feeling overwhelmed, try to stop what you’re doing and connect. “Say, ‘Hey kiddo, you seem a little upset. Want a hug?’

After all, when you’re trying to get out the door now, pumping the brakes for a minute can feel like the wrong choice. But pausing to help your kid make sense of their world can actually save you time in the long run. “Think of it as swapping out a 20-minute tantrum for a two-minute check-in,” Geering says. Worth it.

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