How to get Children to do as they are told

July 21, 2016 Published by

Real Parenting coverDo you want your child to be happy? Of course you do.

But most of us would also like a bit of cooperation from them. Because it’s not that we want our children to be at our beck and call for our own sake. We want them to do what we ask because it is in their interests, we are keeping them safe and teaching them good habits for life, or it is necessary for family harmony. So give yourself permission to be in charge –you are the adult and although it’s essential to treat children respectfully, you have the additional experience and perspective and the more mature rational brain that they lack, which means that many decisions need to be made by you.

Children have a basic evolutionary urge to get their parents’ attention and approval. Historically, it was what kept them safe. But this desire to please us isn’t always apparent when we’re asking them to do something. Why not? Why don’t they do what we ask sometimes?

Well mostly it’s not rocket science.

  • They have a different agenda:

Children want to do what they want to do. And their agenda (finishing off the level on that compelling computer game) is just as important to them, as ours (getting them to bed on time) is to us.


  • They have feelings:

Who’d have thought! Children may sometimes be feeling angry (perhaps with us) or resentful. Sometimes they may feel powerless –they are being told what to do all day long and they wish they could be the one to say what happens.


  • Our instructions are too complicated or difficult:

Children under the age of six can’t absorb more than one or two pieces of information, so an instruction which says:

“Go upstairs, brush your teeth, get into your pyjamas and choose a story. I’ll be up in five minutes to check on you”,

is likely to result in you discovering your child 10 minutes later sitting on the stairs, ‘thinking’.


  • We give too many instructions:

 Too many instructions can mean children tune us out. It becomes like ‘white noise’ to them.


  • They get too used to us repeating and reminding:

 Sometimes children don’t pay attention until we’ve said it seven times or our voices get to that particular pitch that tells them ‘oh now she means business’. One little boy told us he hadn’t done what his mum asked him to because she hadn’t shouted yet.


  • We don’t follow through:

So they know they don’t really need to do it as nothing much happens if they don’t. And maybe nothing much happens when they do what they’re asked either, so why bother?


  • They’re tired or hungry or not very well

There is some neuroscience which helps us understand what’s going on in our children’s brains. It shows that their desire to please us is competing with other very strong urges (their feelings or impulses) and their pre-frontal cortex which controls these impulses won’t be fully developed until their mid-20s.

We can help our children’s brains develop in the right direction by vocalising their feelings – we name it to tame it.

I can see you really don’t want to tidy away your toys. You and Alex had so much fun playing with them, that putting them away probably doesn’t seem so much fun. I expect you’re tired now and wish you could leave it to mummy. Also Alex has gone home so maybe it feels like it’s not fair to have to do it all yourself.”


Grumpy Child Frowning

That helps the rational brain connect with the emotional centres more efficiently.



What else can we do?

  • We can beef up that natural urge to please us by showing them how to win our approval. Give lots of descriptive praise, particularly when they do what you ask them to, or do the right thing without being asked.

“You hung your coat up, so you’ve already done one of the three things you need to do when you come into the house.”


Descriptive praise is a huge motivator. It works better than conventional praise because it is specific and children believe it –the factual language gives credibility. It also requires thought and this shows your child you’ve really thought about it, unlike ‘good girl’.

“This morning when we didn’t have your favourite cereal, you didn’t make a fuss. You are really learning to control what you do with your feelings.”  


  • We should try to limit the number of instructions we give children to avoid resentment, rebelliousness or tuning out. We can do this by having some routines in written or picture form. And we can ask our children what they think needs to happen, rather than telling them.

We also need to brainstorm with our children to get their input on how things should happen at home. Give them choices about how, when and where to do things even if they can’t choose whether something needs to be done.

  • When we do give instructions we can use the three stage approach to maximise cooperation.


This means:

  1. PrepareGo to your child and engage with him. Don’t shout an instruction up the stairs. Descriptive praise gets attention – Use it when your child looks at you.
  2. Give the instruction - Clearly, simply and only once. That’s why you need to do the prep. Use authoritative but not intimidating body language. Smile. Maybe ask them to tell you what they need to do.
  3. Follow through - So easy to write, so hard to do. But effective. Wait in their space, use descriptive praise for small tiny steps in the right direction and empathise that they may not want to do it. Other things they want to do need to wait until this task is done, but don’t turn it into a battle of wills. If they are really resistant, find out why. It will be a feeling. Voicing the feeling lessens resistance.

If you want to know more about Descriptive Praise or naming those pesky feelings read all you need to know for a happy family life in Real Parenting for Real Kids. Click here to find out more.

Parent Practice Founder, Melissa Hood

pictured above: Melissa Hood

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Photo Credit: Grumpy by Mr. Nixter licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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This post was written by Fundamentally Children

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