The Less You Tell Them What To Do, The More They’ll Listen!

girl looking up picking fruit from vine

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Many parents are extremely frustrated with children who just don't seem to listen. There are important things that the children simply must do, but no matter how emphatically and repeatedly we instruct them, we are met with refusal, resistance and often an unpleasant battle. How can we best deal with this?

The answer is paradoxically and amazingly to reduce the overall number of times we tell a child what to do. This has been proven to result in a child who is much more likely to comply with the fewer remaining requests.

You Mean Stop Telling Him What to Do? Then, For Sure, He Won’t Do What He’s Supposed to!

Let's say your boss came into your office every five minutes and gave you an order. By the end of the day, how inclined would you be to listen to him? Children are no different. They are in the middle of trying to achieve that great, golden goal, self-determination. Being told what to do too often may actually prevent children from achieving it. Being bossed is very deflating to a child’s ego. It makes children feel restricted, controlled and unhappy. The good news is that children can happily handle commands a certain portion of the time. Most parents make the mistake of issuing commands just a little bit too often. If a particular child can handle being told what to do a certain number of times a day, say 20 times, he will comply more or less happily. But if you give that child just 22 commands per day, over time resentment and frustration will build up and you will see resistance, tantrums and rebellion. The child will simply begin to say ‘no’ because you've gone beyond his limit. But reducing the amount of commands by just a reasonable amount may well bring him into his comfort zone. Since you don't know what each child's magic number is, I recommend to all parents to issue about 10 percent fewer commands and to wait a few weeks and check for results. The more defiant the child is, the more restricted he feels, and the more commands you will have to eliminate.

But I have so many important things I need to tell him to do!

So you're ready to reduce commands, but which ones do you cut out? The answer is — the minor ones. It's equally burdensome to a child to be ordered to perform a minor task such as picking up a book that he has dropped, as it is to do something extremely important, such as holding hands while crossing through heavy traffic. Therefore you should spend your commands wisely in such a way that results in a greater harvest of compliance. Don't waste precious commands on minor items that can possibly be overlooked. Save your reduced number of commands for important items such as brushing teeth, doing homework, not hitting others, not playing with matches or knives and not doing anything else that is dangerous. By your not ordering a five-year-old to stop climbing on something you might well buy the power to command him to hold your hand while crossing the street a minute later. This is because he will feel happier and less restricted by being able to climb and this happiness will give him the strength to control himself and comply with the hand holding. But if you have just issued several commands, “Do this,” “Don't do that,” then by the time you get to the corner he’s in no mood for another order, and you get resistance and rebellion. I recommend that parents try an experiment. Try spending an hour or two without telling the child what to do, not even once. Then try asking nicely in a sweet soft voice, “Could you please wash your hands?” and you'd be amazed to see him comply. Generally it takes a few weeks of reducing commands for a child to feel less restricted, relax and begin to comply, so don't lose hope, keep it up and you'll soon see results.

boy smiling with paint brush and paint on his face

Ask Nicely!

I'm amazed at how many parents I hear bark orders at their children. Do you like it when someone gives you a gruff order? Children as well as adults appreciate being asked to do things nicely! Ask in a sweet, soft, sing-song voice, “Could you please put on a sweater?”

It's worth giving in on certain items and not issuing commands. For example, let's say a child throws his coat onto the couch. Now I know he supposed to hang it up, but asking him to do it will gain you the very small benefit of saving you the 10 seconds of hanging it up yourself, but you will have used a precious command. Of course, you are concerned that your child needs to learn responsibility, but it may be worthwhile to put a brief hold on that lesson in order to gain the greater benefit of the child being much more likely to comply with an important command five minutes later. Every time you think to issue a command, also think, “Is this really necessary?” 

Instead of Commanding, Describe.

A great way to avoid commands is to describe the situation instead of giving direct orders. Instead of demanding, “Go get a pencil,” say “There’s a pencil over there.” He will then conclude on his own what he should do. Instead of ordering, “Hey, pick up your coat!” describe, “I see a coat on the floor.” This is a very subtle and polite way of conveying expectations.  Instead of saying, “Get out of the street,” say, “5-year olds ride on the sidewalk.” Instead of saying, “Clean up that mess,” say, “I see orange peels on the couch.” By describing, you honor the child because you are in effect saying you have confidence in him that he will behave appropriately. It further prevents you from wasting commands unnecessarily.

For more tips on how to get kids to cooperate, click here.

Give Choices

Instead of ordering, “Put on a sweater,” which makes him feel bossed, say, “Which sweater would you like to wear, the green one, the red one or the hoodie? Say, “We have to go now, would you like me to take the bridge or the tunnel?” Say, “Would you like to take your bath before or after dinner? With or without bubbles? With which toys?” Giving choices empowers children and makes them more likely to comply.

Be Nice!

girl washing window with sponge

Above all, in general be very kind and gentle with children! Being extremely nice to them makes them more willing to comply with your requests. Strengthen the parent-child relationship, it is the most important thing in any child’s life. Always be a source of pleasure to him or her and never a source of stress. Wake up with the mantra of “How can I make my child’s day pleasant,” and you will be amazed to see how agreeable he or she becomes.

See my interesting post: "He should know better than that at his age!" How to help a child mature, here.
Please bear in mind that the above represents a parenting ideal, and parents should not expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my informative free reports. If you are experiencing challenges raising your child and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

For more information on parenting counseling, click here.