'Stop Crying!' and Other Commands that Don't Work
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (more parenting articles are available)
Moments of frustration can lead parents to issuing commands that really don't work. Any time you are ordering your children to change their behavior you're not likely to succeed. 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 (interestingly, most adults also do not like being told what to do!).
Since children ultimately control their own behavior, commands like these are usually ineffective:
- "Stop crying!"
- "No more whining."
- "Don't give me that look."
- "Go to sleep right now!"
Issuing commands also encourages power struggles. When your children don’t comply, you are likely to feel angry and want to force them to obey – a recipe for escalating the situation!
Declaring Your Behavior Instead of Theirs
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 an unpleasant task even more unpleasant.
This dad 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 empathizing with his daughter by saying 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.
Researchers have found that kids are more likely to comply with a request when it’s said in a positive tone and accompanied by “please”. If you can also smile, it helps!
- Command: “Get on your jacket; we’re leaving.”
- Polite Request: “Please put on your jacket; 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 greatly increase the likelihood of success.
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 – which ultimately your kids have over their own behavior.
- 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 in the near future to handle a similar situation in a better way!