It’s 9 a.m., and I’ve already corralled, coaxed, and confronted my 4-year-old more times than I care to count. Some days, the tally isn’t much better for my preschooler’s 6- and 8-year-old siblings. Not that I care to compare.
It’s mornings like this where the question—how to get kids to listen—is top of mind.
We need cooperation from our kids for an awful lot of daily tasks. And the dialogue can get pretty negative and confrontational at times.
Studies show that the average parent issues 17 orders every 30 minutes. For kids with behavioural difficulties, this count can reach 40 commands. And research suggests that the more instructions we issue to our kids, the less likely they’ll comply.
So, what’s a tired and frustrated mama to do? Especially when we want to parent with empathy and respect.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to get our children’s cooperation without slipping into a spiral of negativity and sacrificing our sanity.
Here are 9 must know positive parenting strategies you can start using today.
1. Connect first then issue a command
Picture your child walking in the door and immediately, without even saying hello, issuing a demand: “Mommy, prepare me a snack.”
You’d be taken aback and maybe find yourself thinking, hold on kid! This isn’t a restaurant.
And I think we can agree that you’d be pretty unlikely to follow through with your child’s request—at least not without muttering some unmentionable words under your breath.
The same goes the other way around. Kids also need some time to warm up to commands.
So before issuing a demand, take time to connect with your child. This can be a simple greeting, an expression of interest in what your child is doing, or a gentle hand on the shoulder.
Connecting before commanding increases the likelihood of compliance. It also strengthens the parent-child bond making it a win-win approach.
2. Get your child’s full attention
We’re all guilty of shouting instructions to our kids from a distance, over a din, or when our backs (or our children’s backs) are turned.
The thing is, unless we have our child’s full attention, we can’t be sure they’ve heard our message.
Before issuing a command, try these joint attention techniques.
For younger children, get down to their level. Further secure their attention by making a funny face or playing a quick game, such as a round of peek-a-boo.
For older kids, build shared attention by saying your child’s name or using a phrase such as, “I want to see your brown eyes.”
If your child is old enough, have them repeat back what you’ve said to ensure you’re on the same page. And regardless of age, make sure you’ve made joint eye contact.
Giving kids our full attention sends the message they’re worth the extra effort. It also models good communication skills.
Kids learn a lot from observing others—especially from the important people in their lives. We want to keep this in mind as we explore ways to get our child’rens full attention.
3. Keep commands simple and clear
We want our kids to understand what we expect of them. This requires keeping our commands simple and our language clear.
How do we do this?
Break requests into specific steps. Then deliver these steps no more than one or two at a time. Also, avoid vague phrases—such as “be good” or “be helpful”— statements that don’t provide children with a clear sense of what you expect.
For example, I can tell my kids to “get ready for bed.”
To me, getting ready for bed means taking a bath, putting on PJs, and brushing teeth. But to my kids, preparing for bed appears to mean stalling as long as possible and once upstairs, horsing around on my bed.
So, I’m better off specifically stating what actions I want my children to take.
Some kids can handle multiple step commands well. Others, such as toddlers and kids with neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder) do better with single step instructions.
And often, the fewer words the better—especially for commonly uttered commands.
For example, “Hands” can indicate it’s time to wash up before a meal. “Shoes” can signal that it’s time to put on footwear. And “Toys” can prompt kids to start cleaning up.
Also, considering adding a relevant gesture to the command, such as pointing to the blocks scattered over the floor when it’s time to clean up.
Keeping commands simple and clear is a great starting point to fostering more cooperation—and reducing frustration—at home.
4. An explanation can help
Kids are more likely to follow through when they’re given a reason.
For example, “Close the gate, so the dog doesn’t get out.” Or, “Close the fridge door, so all the cold air stays inside.”
When we include an explanation with our command we’re also teaching. Children learn that an action is worth doing for its own sake rather than simply because mom said so or to avoid getting in trouble.
And as an added bonus—when kids know the reason for a rule, they’re more likely to apply this principle even when we’re not around to remind them.
Sounds great, right?
But there is something to avoid—a drawn out rationale that is more likely to confuse (and annoy) our kids rather than lead to compliance.
Too many details bury the message. So, aim for a short and sweet explanation rather than a lecture.
Again, the point is to keep our commands simple and clear.
5. Be assertive but respectful
We want our kids to know we mean business but not in a way that makes them feel attacked.
To accomplish this goal, we need to think beyond the words we use to other aspects of communication.
Research shows that most of human communication—up to a whopping 90%—is nonverbal. This means that our body language and tone play a bigger role in communication than what we say.
So, we’ve got to think beyond our words when we issue a command.
For example, if I ask my child whether he wants to brush his teeth or ask with an uncertain tone—there’s a higher likelihood he’ll say, “No.”
And before I know it, I’m stuck in a power struggle.
But it’s not just firmness that gets kids to comply. Respect is essential, too. Accusations, insults, and laying blame all put children (and adults, too) on the defensive.
For example, let’s say the toy room is an absolute mess. I could angrily shout, “You never put your toys away!”
But we both know where that leads—typically tears and defiance.
So rather, take a deep calming breath and build on earlier steps. Make eye contact and in a calm voice issue a specific, clear, and firm request such as, “It’s time to put your Lego blocks away. Here’s the bucket they go in.”
Parenting can be extremely frustrating.
But we’re more likely to see success (and be happier parents) in the long run when we instruct our children firmly, and fairly.
6. Offer developmentally appropriate choices
We all want to have our say and to feel capable, kids included. This is particularly true for strong-willed children and at certain developmental stages such as toddlerhood.
By offering a choice, we shift some power into our child’s court and increase the likelihood they’ll cooperate. We also give our children a valuable opportunity to practice problem solving and become more independent.
A couple of caveats, though.
Keep the offered choices simple, clear, and developmentally appropriate.
Toddlers and kids with neurodevelopmental disorders may be overwhelmed by too many options. In this case, keep things straightforward by sticking with two choices tops.
For example, you can offer your toddler the options: “Blue pants or grey pants?” “Banana or apple?” “You put your socks or mommy help you?”
And before offering choices, make sure you can live with the potential outcomes. We’ve all been there, having offered something to our kids that, on second thought, we can’t or don’t want to follow through on.
For example, if we tell a preschooler that he either gets into the car or we stay home (when staying home isn’t really isn’t an option) we’re left in a bind.
So, offer choices when you can but keep options limited and only provide choices you can truly live with.
7. Tell kids what they can do, not just what they cannot do
Our parenting days can seem like a long litany of negative orders, including utterances of:
- Don’t pull the dog’s tail!
- Stop bugging your sister!
- Don’t eat another cookie!
This is annoying—to parents and kids—alike. And constantly telling kids what they can’t do puts children on the defensive.
Negative orders can also be hard to understand, especially for young kids.
This boils down to the two-part structure of negative commands, which require children to both understand:
- What they’re not supposed to do, and
- What they should do (implied, but not stated)
Let’s take the example of kids jumping on the couch.
If I tell my child: “Stop jumping on the couch!” she may get the gist of what I’m asking. And she may stop jumping—at least for a minute or two.
Or, I could be clearer and say, “You can’t jump on the couch, but you can jump on the floor or outside.” Now my child is better informed about what is expected of her.
Will she jump on the couch again, at some point? Probably—because rules need to be consistently reinforced to help kids learn.
But we’re more likely to have success—and feel good about delivering a command—when we keep things positive, consistent, and clear.
8. Use a curiosity question
Try asking your child a question rather than directly issuing a command. This technique—referred to as a curiosity question—turns telling into asking.
Importantly, curiosity questions shift the ball into your child’s court.
For example, let’s say it’s hard to get your child out of the house. Try asking: “What can you tell your body to help get it out the door?”
Or, your child needs a reminder to pick up his toys. You can ask: “How do we take care of our toys?”
Or, your child tends to forget her hat. Try asking: “What do you need to protect you from the sun today?”
Curiosity questions are particularly helpful for kids who need prompting to complete tasks and as a technique to redirect behaviour at the first hint of things going south.
For example, if your child struggles to get through her bedtime routine you can say: “What’s the next step to get ready for bed?” If you see your child reaching for the iPad during a non-screen time, you can ask: “What time do we use the iPad?”
Not only are you more likely to see success, you’re also giving your child the valuable opportunity to problem solve.
So, next time you’re struggling to get through a routine or dealing with noncompliance, give curiosity questions a try.
9. Give kids time to follow through
Kids need time to process and respond to commands.
After making a demand, try pausing, first, before repeating yourself. A couple of deep breaths or counting down from ten can help fill the void as you wait.
Also consider what time frame is reasonable for your child to complete a task and clearly state this to your child.
For example, let’s say I want my child to stop playing his favourite game and join me for supper. Chances are, he’s not going to leap up immediately and run to the table the instant he hears the supper call (unless it’s his favourite meal or he’s really hungry).
So, rather than say, “Come to supper, now!” I could state, “You can play for five more minutes. Then it’s time to eat.” Or, “After you put together that Lego figure, it’s time for supper.”
The amount of advance warning you give—and whether you remain present until your child complies—will depend on the situation and the child’s developmental stage.
Young children will likely need you present for more guidance as they’re prone to getting off task. Saying nearby also help you notice and acknowledge even the smallest steps on compliance. For example, when you child cleans up a single block or closes the book they were engrossed in.
Older children typically can be given more latitude when it comes to following through on tasks.
For example, you can ask your preteen, “What’s your plan for the garbage?” Or, if you want to make it time-bound, you could say, “Will you be taking the garbage out before lunch or before dinner?”
In both cases, you’ve indicated a clear time frame (the garbage needs to be out by dinner), but still left some autonomy in your child’s court.
How to get kids to listen—demystified
It gets really tiresome to be constantly issuing commands, especially when nothing seems to work.
But there’s hope! Especially when we’re equipped with helpful positive parenting tools.
Here’s a recap of the 9 must know techniques to improve compliance and create a more harmonious home:
- Connect first then issue a command
- Get your child’s full attention
- Keep commands simple and clear
- An explanation can help
- Be assertive but respectful
- Offer developmentally appropriate choices
- Tell kids what they can do, not just what they cannot do
- Use a curiosity question
- Give kids time to follow through
It’s important to note that no single parenting tip or hack will lead to compliance all the time.
Rather it’s by using a variety of tools—frequently and consistently—that we can expect to see improvement.
And it’s completely normal for these parenting strategies to feel awkward at first. Fortunately, the more we use these tools, the easier they’ll get. I promise!
To increase the likelihood of success, I suggest choosing one tool and practicing it until that skill becomes second nature. You can then build from there.
We’re more likely to make forward process when we take things slow and are kind to ourselves along the way.
So, what skill will you practice first?
I’d love to hear from you!
Have you found any parenting strategies that help get your family successfully through your days? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.
And if you think these tips would help another mama, please share the post!