Five Rules for Giving Instructions that Children Will Obey


Written by Jacquelyn Blocher

Previous blog posts have addressed several strategies to decrease your child’s problem behaviors, from being consistent with discipline (link) to the power of praise and attending to positive behaviors (links). Learning to give attention to the behaviors you like and minimizing attention for behaviors you don’t like can solve most of your child’s minor behavioral problems. There are some instances though when you need to tell your child to do something that cannot be ignored.

All too often though, many parents find themselves at a bit of a loss for how to best tell their child to do something that really needs to be done. The same instructions are repeated more than once. Negotiating or bending the previously enforced rules becomes the norm. Frustrations increase as children whine, stall, or plead in response to parental commands or limit setting.

So why has giving effective directions to your child become something that is so challenging? Often, parents and their children have fallen into a pattern in which their words no longer carry the same meaning they were intended to have. This happens when a parent does not consistently follow through on what he or she says, and over time the child learns that he does not always have to do what he is told. Bottom line, as with other parenting techniques, consistency is crucial. If you say it, mean it, and show your child you mean it by always following through. If you don’t have time to be consistent or follow through, avoid giving instructions, and in turn avoid teaching your child that they do not have to do what you say.

Are you ready to consistently follow through on your instructions? To increase the likelihood that your child will do what you tell him to, follow these five rules below. While they may seem simple, it takes practice and consistency for them to work effectively.

  1. Your statement of instruction should make it clear that your child is being told to do something, and she/he is the one expected to do it. For example, imagine that you have just finished coloring pictures with your daughter. She needs to put away the crayons from the table so there is room for you and your family to eat dinner. An effective command in this situation would be, “Sarah, please put the crayons back in the drawer.” This is a direct statement in which you told her exactly what you expected her to do. Avoid instructions that ask a child to do something like, “Could you please out the crayons back in the drawer now?” Additionally, stay away from directions that make it unclear who is expected to perform the action such as, “Let’s put the crayons back in the drawer,” or “We’re going to put the crayons away now.” In these statements, it is unclear if the task will be a joint effort between you and the child. Also, instructions that begin with question words or words like “let’s” or “we” imply a suggestion or choice rather than something that is non-negotiable.
  1. Make your command positively-stated and specific. Make sure your command tells your child what to do, and avoid telling them what not to do. If you give an instruction by telling her what you don’t want, how does she know what you are expecting her to do? Going back to the crayon example, I did not say, “Please, stop coloring” or “Don’t color anymore pictures.” Negative statements can lower your child’s self-esteem, and also increase negativity in your parent-child relationship. Additionally, do you want your child to just stop coloring? No, you want her to clean up and get ready for dinner. Think about what it is that you want your child to Be specific and positive in your phrasing.
  1. Only tell your child to do one thing at a time. When you give instructions that have multiple parts, and a child only obeys a portion of what you tell her, it is hard to know if the child forgot or if she is deliberately disobeying. To prevent this problem, give only one instruction at a time. If you want your child to put away the crayons and then set the table, first give one command about the crayons. Then, after she obeys, give a second command about putting the silverware on the table. This way you’ll avoid having to deliberate about how to follow through if your child only does part of your two-part command.
  1. Give your command in a normal, neutral tone of voice. Teach your child that all commands are expected to be followed. By teaching your child that polite commands are optional or can be ignored, you will stay away from teaching her only to obey instructions when you use raise your voice. Further, instructions given in an angry tone lead to unpleasant interactions. Keep in mind that as your emotions rise, it becomes more difficult to think and act clearly, which can lead to less consistency and ultimately ineffective commands.
  1. After you give a command, avoid speaking and watch and wait. Be ready to give a warning and to then follow up with a consequence. If you give a command and don’t watch and wait for it to be completed, you are essentially telling your child that you do not expect it to be done. If after some waiting, the child doesn’t obey, reinforce your command by giving a warning “If you do not put the crayons in the drawer, then you will not be able to play with them tomorrow,” or “If you do not put the crayons in the drawer, then you will not get dessert tonight.” After the warning, watch and wait once more. Then, follow through with your consequence if your child does not do what you told her to do. Avoid saying anything else, including answering questions or negotiating, until after your child has obeyed or the consequence has been delivered. Say your warnings and consequences with as few words as possible. If you give into negotiating or changing your consequence, you have taught your child that you do not mean what you say. You have also started the cycle of making your commands less effective.

Consistency is key to teach your child to obey your commands. Remember, once you say an instruction, show your child you mean it by following through!

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