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 him 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. She might not know whether you’re asking for her help, telling her what to do, or complaining that no-one is helping.

If what you want isn’t clear, you probably won’t get it!

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 or rebellious if there are too many instructions.

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

Instructions can be hard for your child. These ideas can help you get more cooperation when you need to give instructions.

Ensure you have your child’s attention
Getting your child’s attention will help make sure he’s listening. 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
  • asking your child to repeat the instructions back to you.

Use clear language
Instructions should be clear, short and appropriate for your child’s age. For example, for a toddler you might say ‘Toys away’. But for a five-year old you could say ‘Please put your toys away now’.

Give only one instruction at a time for younger children.

Be positive
Positive instructions help your child succeed because they tell her exactly what you want her to do. For example, say ‘Please chew with your mouth closed’ instead of ‘Don’t eat like that’.

Give instructions that include options
This can increase the chances of your child doing what you ask, because it gives your child some choice. For example, ‘It’s bath time. Do you want bubbles or no bubbles?' Or ‘It’s time to get dressed – the red pants or the blue ones?’

Be prepared to repeat yourself
Children often need reminders. For example, ‘Sam, I’m telling you again. Put your shoes on now’.

You can try adding an incentive or reason for your child to do as he’s 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
If your child won’t follow your instructions, you can use consequences for children over three. 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 eventually learn that sometimes she needs to do things she doesn’t want to do to help your family, get praise, avoid discomfort or get what she wants. This is an important step in developing self-discipline and independence.

Helping your child learn to cooperate with requests and instructions: tips

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 when he does cooperate – for example, ‘Great job, 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 also 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.

Why your child might not cooperate

If your child isn’t cooperating, it might be because you’re expecting more than she can do. You might need to teach your child skills or show her how to do things so she can cooperate.

There might be a good reason why your child won’t do what you’re asking – for example, because he feels unwell, tired or scared. Asking an over-tired and hungry child to clean up his 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 normal. Your child’s behaviour will change as she develops. 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.

Most children love attention – and many don’t mind whether it’s positive or negative. If your child is getting lots of negative attention for refusing to cooperate, he might keep behaving this way. Instead, try to give your child more attention for cooperation. Respond in a low-key way when he doesn’t cooperate.