What To Do Instead of Giving Kids Commands
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)
(listen to article read by the author)
How do your kids respond to your commands? What happens if you yell "Stop that!”? Do they immediately stop or do they continue whatever they were doing?
Moments of frustration can lead to issuing commands. Any time you order your children to change their behavior you're inviting a power struggle. Instead of producing the desired behavioral change, commands often lead to some type of resistance.
For example, when feeling stressed to leave on time, you may yell to your children "Hurry up! It's time to get going!" It can feel good to give commands because it seems like you have more control over a situation when you're shouting commands. However, children often resist being told what to do.
Children ultimately control their own behavior. Using commands like these are often ineffective:
- "Stop crying!"
- "No more whining."
- "Don't give me that look."
- "Brush your teeth."
- "Get your shoes on."
- "Clean up your mess."
Issuing commands seems like the quickest way to influence your children’s behavior. However, if your children don’t comply, you are likely to feel angry and want to force them to obey – a recipe for escalating the situation!
Telling Them What You Are Going To Do
It is easy to fall into the parenting trap of using commands to try and control your children's behavior. However, it is far more effective to tell them what you are going to do instead of what they have to do. You might declare "The car is leaving in five minutes." instead of saying "Hurry up!"
Another example comes from a dad who was trying to change his 18-month-old daughter's diaper while she was crying and struggling to get away. When doing an unappealing task like changing a diaper, it's difficult to have a child who is resisting and making it even more unpleasant.
He responded by telling his daughter "Stop crying!" Not only did she not stop crying, her crying intensified. It was easy to relate to his frustration as well as his child's reaction.
In this case, the dad probably would have been more successful by first empathizing with his daughter. He might have said something like "I can see you're really upset. I'm going to change your diaper and then we will leave." By acknowledging her feelings and telling her what he was going to do, he could avoid telling her what she had to do.
Asking Politely in Proximity
There are things you can do which will increase the likelihood your kids will comply with your request. When you make a request, try to:
- use a positive tone
- include “please”
- be physically near your child rather than shouting across the house
Here are some examples of turning a command into a polite request:
- Command: “Get on your shoes; we’re leaving.”
- Polite Request: “Please put on your shoes; we’re leaving. I can help you if you would like.”
- Command: “Go feed the dog.”
- Polite Request: “Please feed the dog while I get started on making dinner.”
- Command: “Wash your hands.”
- Polite Request: “Please wash your hands then join us for lunch.”
Just a small change in how you make a request to your child can increase the likelihood of success. If your child does not comply, follow up. You might put your hand on your child’s shoulder saying “What did I ask you to do?”
Asking Instead of Telling
Another idea that works well is to ask your kids a question instead of telling them what to do. Questions imply choice. When your kids feel like they have a say in what happens, they are more likely to be cooperative.
- Command: “Go do your homework.”
- Question: “What’s your plan for getting your homework done?”
- Command: “Brush your teeth.”
- Question: “What do you need to do before bed so that you don’t get cavities?”
- Command: “Pick up your toys.”
- Question: “What do you need to do now that you are done playing with those toys?”
Asking questions encourages your kids to do the thinking instead of you. If you usually give commands, challenge yourself to asking questions for an hour each day to try it out.
Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you may find yourself shouting commands. It's helpful to reflect on how you could have handled the situation differently. You are likely to have a second chance soon to handle a similar situation in a better way!