Requests and instructions: the difference
A request is when you ask your child to do something.
For example, ‘Will you help me fold this washing?’ Or ‘Do you want to wear your coat? It’s cold today’. Your child can choose to say yes or no to a request.
An instruction is when you tell your child to do something.
For example, ‘Please help me fold this washing now’ or ‘Please put your coat on when we go out’. This tells your child what you want them to do and when. You’re not giving your child the option of saying no.
It’s important to be clear about whether you’re asking or telling your child to do something. If you say something like, ‘Why can’t anyone help me tidy up in here?’ it’s harder for your child to know what to do. Your child might not know whether you’re asking for their help, telling them what to do, or complaining that no-one is helping.
Requests or instructions?
Instructions and requests are both important, and it’s best to use a mix of instructions and requests.
Instructions are often important for safety – for example, ‘Hold my hand while we cross the road’. And learning to follow instructions helps your child prepare for preschool and school. But children can feel overwhelmed if there are too many instructions. They might also be more likely to challenge instructions if there are too many.
Requests give your child choices and a sense of control, which might make your child more likely to cooperate.
So try using requests more often than instructions.
Giving effective instructions: ideas
Here are ideas for giving instructions in a way that encourages your child to cooperate.
Ensure you have your child’s attention
If you get your child’s attention, you can make sure they’re listening to instructions. You can do this by:
- moving in close – within 2 metres is ideal
- getting down to your child’s eye level
- using your child’s name
- using a low and calm voice.
Use clear language
Instructions should be clear, short and appropriate for your child’s age. For example, for a toddler you might say ‘Please put the blocks in the box’. But for a 5-year old you could say, ‘Please put the blocks in the box, and put the box on the shelf’.
Give only one instruction at a time, especially for younger children.
Positive instructions help your child succeed because they tell your child exactly what you want them to do. For example, say, ‘Please chew with your mouth closed’ instead of ‘Don’t eat like that’.
This can increase the chances of your child doing what you ask, because it gives your child some choice. For example, ‘Get ready for your bath please. Do you want bubbles or no bubbles?’ Or ‘It’s time to get dressed. Do you want to wear the red pants or the blue ones?’
Ask your child to repeat instructions
When you first give your child an instruction, it’s a good idea to ask them to say it back to you. This gives you the chance to check that your child has heard and understood what you want them to do.
Over time, as your child learns to respond to the instruction, you probably won’t need to ask your child to repeat the instruction unless they stop following it.
Be prepared to repeat yourself
Children often need reminders. For example, ‘Sam, I’m telling you again. Please put your shoes on now’.
You can try adding an incentive or reason for your child to do as they’re told. For example, ‘If you put your shoes on quickly, we’ll have more time at the park’. For a younger child you might say, ‘First shoes, then park’.
Use consequences for children over 3 years
If your child aged over 3 years won’t follow your instructions, you can use consequences. For example, ‘Please put your other toys away before I get out the paints’. The consequence might be no painting – very boring! – until your child tidies up.
If you’re firm and consistent your child will learn that sometimes they need to do things they don’t want to do to help your family, get praise, avoid discomfort or get what they want. This is an important step in developing self-regulation and independence.
Helping your child learn to cooperate with requests and instructions
It can take time for children to learn to cooperate with instructions and requests. These ideas might help things along:
- Keep using the same, familiar words – for example, ‘Listen Jamie’, ‘You need to’ and ‘Now please’. These words act as cues, and eventually your child will understand.
- Give your child praise and encouragement and positive attention when they do cooperate – for example, ‘Great job with folding the clothes. I couldn’t have done it without you’.
- Set up daily routines. A routine can help your child get through repetitive daily tasks. Routines can be particularly helpful for young children and children with additional needs.
- Try engaging your child in tasks by making them fun or part of a game. For example, ‘Beat the buzzer’ is a game that can help children get ready and out the door in the morning.
- Work with children to get things done. Children are more likely to cooperate if they see others responding to a request or following an instruction.
Why your child might not cooperate
If your child isn’t cooperating, it might be because you’re expecting more than they can do. You might need to help your child learn skills or show them how to do things so they can cooperate.
There might be a good reason why your child won’t do what you’re asking – for example, because they feel unwell, tired or scared. Asking an over-tired and hungry child to clean up their room probably isn’t going to work. If your child isn’t cooperating for a good reason, you might need to change your instruction so your child is more likely to cooperate. For example, ‘After dinner, I want you to clean up your room’.
Sometimes children go through phases of refusing to cooperate at all. This is common. Your child’s behaviour will change as they develop. Try to be consistent, firm and loving and focus on getting your child to cooperate on the important things, like safety.
If your child has additional needs, it’s helpful to coach other people – for example, older siblings, extended family members and neighbours – so they know how to give your child effective requests and instructions.