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Answers from Experts

Q: My son only does about a third of what I ask him to do. I tell him to make his bed, pick up the toys, and put on his shoes before he comes downstairs. He’ll make his bed but then come downstairs without his shoes and with his room a mess. How can I get my child to listen to me and do what I ask him to do?

A: Many parents face this challenge. Keep in mind that toddlers and preschoolers have very short attention spans. When we tell them to do more than one thing at a time, they often cannot remember everything. It is likely that your child only remembers the first thing you tell him. In this case, you told him to make his bed first, which he did. He may have forgotten the rest. If you give him one direction at a time, it is more likely that he will listen to you and follow your directions.

Q: I sometimes feel like I am a drill sergeant. I’m always telling my child what to do and what not to do. I feel like I shouldn’t be correcting his behavior all the time and that I should accept that he is just a kid. Is this a common feeling among parents?

A: Parents often feel this way. When kids are in the toddler and preschool years, parents DO have to spend a lot of time correcting their children’s behaviors. It is common for parents to feel overwhelmed by how much teaching has to happen. Part of our job is setting limits on their behaviors early so that they learn to listen and respect rules and directions. This is how we begin sharing our values and teaching them right from wrong. It is also okay to allow your child choices at times. Pick your battles and understand that you do not have to make all of the decisions. Your child may make mistakes but that is okay too. Children learn from mistakes like they learn from what we teach them.

Q: Whenever I ask my daughter to clean up after playing or after eating, she always laughs, tells me “No!”, and runs away. I can’t get her to listen to me! How can I get her to clean up after herself?

A: It is common for children to test the limits and not listen to directions. This can be very frustrating for parents. One of the first things to remember in getting your child to do what you want is to give a good direction. A good direction is a statement, not a question. A question like, “Would you like to clean up your toys?” or “Clean up your toys, ok?” gives your child the chance to say “No.” Good directions are statements that tell your child exactly what you want her to do. For example, you might say, “Put your dolls in the toy box.” This is a clear statement of what you want your child to do. If your child says “No,” then she has not followed your direction and you should follow through with a consequence. If you use good directions and consistently follow through with consequences when directions are not followed, your child will learn that she has to do what you say. Click here for more information on giving directions.

Q: It seems like the only way I can get my son to do anything that I tell him to do is by yelling at him and threatening to punish him. I’ve tried asking him nicely, but he always refuses and throws a fit until I raise my voice. Is there anything I should do differently or is this normal?

A: It sounds like you have fallen into what is called a “yelling trap.” Your child has learned that he only needs to act when the yelling starts. Over time, you may need to yell louder and threaten more things to get your child to do what you want. This can be exhausting and frustrating for parents. Changing the way you give directions can help. Provide directions one at a time in a neutral, firm tone, with no yelling or pleading. If your child does not follow your direction, use a consequence immediately. If you use a neutral, firm tone when giving the direction and always follow through with consequences when your child doesn’t follow your direction, your child will learn that he has to listen, even when you are not yelling.

Q: My daughter is a pretty smart 4-year-old. She certainly knows how to “push my buttons.” When I tell her to do something, she never really seems to do it correctly. For example, I’ll tell her to put her toys away, and she will usually pick up some of them but not all of them, or she’ll just throw them in the direction of the toy box and not put them inside. Does she truly not understand what I’m asking her to do or is she doing this on purpose?

A: One of the first things to consider is whether your direction is appropriate for your child’s age. You also may want to consider whether your daughter understands what it means to put her toys away. She may think she is following the direction by only doing part of it or by doing something similar to your direction. You may need to teach her exactly what you expect. In the future, you can have your daughter repeat the direction back to you to make sure she understands. If the direction is okay for your daughter’s age and she knows what your direction means, she may be testing the limits if she still does not follow your direction. Children test the limits to see what they can get away with. If your daughter clearly understands what she is supposed to do and she does not do it as you have told her, you should follow through with a consequence. When you follow through with the consequence every time your child does not listen, she will learn she is not going to get away with only doing a portion of the task or doing something slightly different. It will take patience, but with enough consistent follow through, the problem should improve.

Q: My child often says “wait a minute” or pretends he does not hear me when I tell him to do something. I get frustrated when I have to yell or repeat myself several times. Am I doing something wrong?

A: Children respond in many different ways to our directions. It is common for children to tell their parents to wait a minute or pretend they don’t hear the direction. Children may also do things like dawdle or take their time, do what was asked but with a bad attitude, or follow the direction but then go back and undo it. It is also common for parents to find themselves repeating directions and getting frustrated. When giving directions, it is important to stay calm and use a neutral tone of voice. It is also best to only give a direction once. If your child does not follow your direction, you can give him one warning. If he still does not follow your direction, follow through with the consequence immediately. As your directions get better and you child learns to follow your directions, you will use warnings less often. Always follow through with consequences if your child does not follow your direction after the warning. Click here for more information on giving good directions and checking compliance.

Q: Is there something I can do to get my child to listen and follow my directions better?

A: When giving a direction, you can begin by making sure you have your child’s attention. You can do this by bending down, squatting, or sitting next to your child so you are face-to-face. Make sure you have eye contact. If you want to make sure your child understands your direction, have him repeat the direction to you. You also want to make sure the direction fits your child’s age and ability. Make the direction as clear and specific as possible by telling your child exactly what you want. It is also important to give one direction at a time. Toddlers and preschoolers have a very short attention span. If you tell them to do more than one thing at a time, they may not be able to remember everything. Click here for other tips on giving good directions.