How do you get your child to do what you want?

I was asked this question by a father I met on a parenting course last week. He didn’t ask because he was marvelling at the incredible obedience of my child (who wasn’t there and who he’d never met), but I think because it was a question that had been puzzling him lately, and he wanted to hear what other parents had to say.

I found it difficult to give a short answer, which I guess sums it up really – there is no simple answer. So I’ve decided my answer deserves a blog post.

Without the use of bribes and threats, it’s all about strategies. Here are some of mine. None of them are guaranteed to work – that’s why it’s useful to have a few to try for different situations. But I believe they are, however, guaranteed to avoid jeopardising relationships, damaging a child’s self esteem, and creating long term problems.

Give choices

A child is much more likely to comply if they feel they have some control over the situation, have had their wishes consulted, and have been shown respect. Giving choices can achieve all this.

“Shall we put your shoes or coat on first?”

Or “Are you going to sit here or here for shoes on?”

Note that the child does not have overall choice about everything – they don’t have a choice about whether or not they’re going out – the adult retains overall control but gives the child choices within this. Let’s face it – children have very little choice over what happens to them each day. Giving choices where possible can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness and frustration and feed a child’s growing desire for independence. See my previous post on this strategy. 

Give information not commands

A subtle re-phrasing can sometimes be all that’s needed. So instead of “Put your shoes on”;

“We need to put our shoes on now so we can go out.”

“It’s time to put our shoes on.”

“It’s time to go out. Your shoes are ready at the bottom of the stairs.”

Again, I’ve written another post just on this strategy. Don’t knock it just yet – it’s surprising how well it can work.

Be playful and stay connected

This is probably my favourite one, and the one with which I have the most success. Be silly, make a joke, make things fun.

“Let’s race to see who can put their shoes on first.”

“We’re going on an adventure. Let’s get our special adventure shoes on.” Elaborate, create themes ad hoc.

Make silly noises as you put your shoes on and challenge your child to make some of their own, do a silly shoes-on dance or song, get creative, have fun and giggle!

Playfulness brings us to our child’s level and keeps us connected with them. Connection is the key to cooperation – well, to everything really.

This strategy is on my list of topics for future posts. In the meantime, read Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting”. Brilliant.

Give warnings

Give your child a chance to shift gears. If they’re in the middle of something, don’t expect them to drop everything any more than you would want to if you were in the middle of something.  Give some warnings, explain what’s happening next, and when they can return to what they’re doing now. Make a connection with them before trying to get them to comply.

Validate

If your child protests, cries, gets upset – validate, don’t scold.

“You were having fun doing that and now we have to go out. That must be hard. You’re feeling upset about this etc…”

Showing a child we’re on their side and understand is far more to likely to head off a major power struggle or meltdown.

Do it yourself

Don’t obsess about what age your child should or should not be doing things themselves. Just put their shoes on for them if this is easier. Nicely, whilst talking or joking with them, and making eye contact.

No, you will not still be doing this when they’re a teenager.  You just won’t. Really.

These strategies may sound unrealistic to some, but the most important thing I’ve discovered is that once I made the shift in attitude away from that of expecting instant compliance and blind obedience, and once I dispensed with using any bribes or threats, I found these strategies worked better simply because I was coming up against less resistance in the first place.

Difficult behaviour usually stems from disconnection. Playfulness, empathy, patience, understanding and respect will keep you connected whilst punishment and reward systems won’t.

Please share what strategies have worked for you.

5 Responses to How do you get your child to do what you want?

  1. Brilliant! I wrote something like this about gaining toddler compliance, but I love how you’ve used similar ideas for any age group. And “do it yourself” is such a great idea, one that I think we often forget. Too often, I think parents get hung up on the power struggle aspect of parenting. We aren’t entitled to have our kids do everything we ask every time. We can set a good example and hope they’ll follow. And yes, one day they will be capable of doing it all themselves…we might even miss asking.

  2. charlotte says:

    The most important strategy for us is to connect before requesting anything – resistance is almost certain if we are not connected at the time. Thanks for the post x

  3. Vivienne says:

    Connecting by joining with my child in what he is doing, eg. “I see you are busy with the …..”, show some interest, then move on to the request. This sometimes works, it came from the “Hold on to your kids” book. Similar to this, listening to what he is up to, often mine will be busy finishing something or putting something away, so he is not doing what I want because of this quite valid reason.

    They only work when I do them though, I keep forgetting and hoping for some quick compliance, which ends up in a battle which I later regret (and of course takes longer anyway). Think I will print out your post and put it up somewhere to remind me!

  4. Beverly Brown says:

    Sometimes I offer the choice: “Do you want to do it yourself or have me help you?”

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