Strategies for Giving Effective Directions to Kids

As a family therapist, I often hear from parents, “I’ve tried everything and my kids still won’t listen to me!” Of all the tasks of parenting, one of the most difficult is that of giving directions. Being a parent can involve not only responding to kids’ schedules and various needs, but also attending to work demands, partner and friend relationships, as well as personal and household tasks. Amidst multiple responsibilities and high levels of stress, giving directions to kids can be very challenging, especially when they ignore or resist. Here are some strategies that many parents have used so that their directions are better heard, and ultimately followed:


Tune in to their world. Making specific efforts to pay attention to kids can help build their trust in you as an authority figure. Just showing that you are looking or listening (“You have a big backpack today!”, or “You seem really happy that you won the game!”) can be a great place to start. Following up with open-ended questions such as “what games did you play at recess today?” can further demonstrate to kids that you care about the specifics of their lives, and can make it more likely that they will take you seriously when you give directions.

Avoid surprises as much as possible.  Work with your children to anticipate what they will need to do. For instance, you might write or draw out morning or bedtime routines with them ahead of time. You might also offer brief reminders from time to time: “30 minutes until bedtime”.

Try to get on the same page as the other authority figures.  As much as you can, try to work out common standards for behavior with other authority figures in your child’s life.

Be as clear as possible. Make sure to give clear, specific, and brief directions to your children. Get close, make you have your child’s attention, make eye contact, and say your child’s name. “Joanne, you need to have your clothes on, your backpack ready, and be ready to go in 15 minutes.”

Offer choices.  Giving kids alternatives can reduce power struggles and get kids in the habit of making positive choices: “You can do the laundry or the dishes tonight”.

Be consistent. It’s impossible to be consistent all the time, and it is important to remember that you have the right to change your mind. Nevertheless, having consistent standards can add clarity to directions, and can help you be brief. If the rule has been “finish your homework before you can play on the computer”, and a child reaches for the computer, you might say, “Remember, you can play when you’re done”.

Frame consequences as the results of choices kids make.  Threats of punishment can sometimes lead to compliance, but generally speaking, describing consequences as the outcome of children’s choices is most conducive to responsible behavior in the long run.  For instance, instead of yelling out, “Pick up your toys or I’ll take them away!” you might spell out the consequences of your child’s actions:  “When you finish your homework, you can play on the computer.”

When they don’t follow through, try observing what needs to be done rather than reiterating directions.  If a child’s plate is left on the table, you might say aloud, “the plate is still on the table”, rather than repeating that they need to clear their plate.  These observations will not only lessen power struggles, but will help kids develop an awareness of what needs to be done.

Encourage kids when they follow through on directions. It is easy to focus on the things children are not following through with. But it is just as important, if not more important, to encourage them when they do follow through. “You were able to pick up your toys even though it seemed really hard for you.  Very good effort”.

Avoid lengthy lectures.  In calm moments, it can be useful to discuss standards for respectful communication and appropriate behavior, and why they are important. When giving directions, however, fewer words usually leads to less fuss. For example, if you need to leave for a party, avoid explaining why it is important that a child dresses nicely. You might instead say “pick a dress and then come downstairs when you are done.” This way, the child knows the task at hand. You can pick another time to discuss appropriate dress.

Modulate expressions of emotion. It is common for parents to feel frustrated or exasperated when children are not complying with directions.  Showing too much unmodulated emotion, however, can lead to greater struggles.  When upset, it can be helpful to take a deep breath before giving directions.  You might use a stern voice to let your kids know that you “mean business”, but too intense expressions of anger or upset can often lead to arguments, and even less compliance in the long run.

No parent is always consistent, calm, or encouraging, just as no child always follows directions; but with some effort, and support from other authority figures, you may find that, by implementing a few of these changes, you will have more order as well as responsible behavior in the home, and your will spend less time struggling with and more time enjoying your children.

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