By Dr Robert Needlman
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Don't state an instruction as a question. Instructions that are phrased as questions can be confusing to children.


Everyday, you have plenty of good opportunities for choices, negotiation, compromise and discussion with your children. There are also times when you just need them to do what you ask. Effective instructions are reasonable and easily understood, and they can help in these situations.

One of the most common complaints that parents have is that their children don’t listen. And sometimes you need them to – for example, when you’re trying to keep them safe and while carrying out everyday routines and tasks.

Quite often the problem goes away once the parents learn how to give instructions more effectively. Telling children what you want them to do – and having them actually do it – seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world. But it isn’t. There actually are techniques that can make giving instructions much more effective.

Decide on an instruction or a request

First, decide whether to give an instruction or make a request. This is an important distinction:

  • A request gives your child a choice. For example, if you say to your six-year-old, ‘I wish you’d clean up your room’, that’s a request. You want the room cleaned up, but he probably wants to keep playing. You have stated your preference, but you’ve left the decision up to your child.
  • An instruction is something your child needs to follow. For example, ‘Please pick up your clothing and toys now’. This tells your child what you expect, and when. It lets your child know that she really does not have a choice about the matter.

It’s up to you to decide ahead of time whether to give an instruction or make a request. When you give an instruction, you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure that instruction is followed.

So it makes sense to save instructions for things that you really care about. Safety issues – wearing a bike helmet, for example – are clearly not a matter of choice. But many lesser issues can be.

On a cold day, for example, you could say to your child, ‘Please put on your coat now’ (instruction). Or, since being cold doesn’t actually give children colds, you might instead make a request, ‘I wish you’d wear a coat. You’ll be cold’ (request). If your child then chooses to go coatless, he might be wiser the next time it’s cold outside.

Both instructions and requests have their place. Children need to learn how to follow reasonable instructions from adults. But they also need to practise making choices about their behaviour.

Get your child’s attention

When giving an instruction, first make sure you have your child’s attention. Children, like everyone else, tend to turn a deaf ear to things they’d rather not hear. So, instead of talking to your child from across the room, try the following:

  • Take the time to walk over.
  • Stoop down so that your face is at eye level. Look your child right in the eye.
  • Tell your child what you want him to do. Use a serious but friendly face and voice.
  • A gentle touch on your child’s shoulder can help focus his attention.

Make sure it’s an instruction

Don’t state an instruction as a question. Instructions that are phrased as questions can be confusing to children.

Let’s say, for example, that your child drops a lolly wrapper and turns to walk away. ‘Do you want to pick that up?’ is a question. It allows the child to think, ‘Well, no, I don’t want to right now’ and keep on going. It’s much more effective to be direct. You could perhaps say, ‘Please pick that wrapper up right now’.

Be clear and specific

Be clear about what needs to be done and when. ‘Clean up your room!’ might seem clear enough, but it really isn’t. Does it mean putting away the toys, picking up all the clothes off the floor and putting them, folded neatly, away in the drawers, vacuuming the floor, or all of the above? Does the room need to be cleaned up right away, or will sometime later be OK?

It helps to be specific. For example, ‘Please put the toys away and the clothes in the basket now’.

Make sure your child can do what you’re asking

If a child is crying with fright, ordering her to stop is not very helpful – she needs comforting, not controlling. If her room is such an incredible mess that you don’t really know where to start, it’s not fair to order her to clean it all up. Instead, help her break the task down into smaller pieces that she can handle.

Follow through on instructions

Don’t yell or threaten. Do follow through. Many parents feel they have no choice but to yell. They might start out quietly enough, but they get louder and louder as their children ignore them. Finally, when they’re furious, the children listen. They seem to think that parents aren’t serious unless they’re yelling. Other parents don’t yell, but they threaten time-out or another consequence over and over and over. Children quickly learn to ignore the first threat – or the first seven!

The solution to this problem is simple: give an instruction once, and then make certain that your child responds.

A good way to do this is to:

  • Go over to your child.
  • Get your child’s attention (as described above).
  • State the instruction again.
  • Make it clear that you expect your child to do it right now.
  • Stay with your child until he follows the instruction.
It is much harder to resist a polite, firm approach than to ignore a raving parent. Eventually your child will learn that when you give an instruction, you mean business.