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Steps in Giving Directions

Step 2: Give the direction

Dad and daughter sitting at table with apples and oranges

Tell your child exactly what you want him to do. Here are some tips for giving good directions.

Be sure the direction fits your child’s age.

Make sure your child is able to do what you have told him to do. For example, a 2-year-old can take your hand before crossing the street, but he can’t mop the floor. Remember that inability is not the same as disobeying.

Tell your child exactly what behavior you want to see.

Your words are important. A good direction will clearly tell your child what you expect. The direction is specific and not stated as a question. While using the words “No”, “Don’t,” Quit,” or “Stop” are an everyday part of parenting a toddler and preschooler, the direction only tells the child what not to do. This may stop the misbehavior momentarily, but it does not tell the child what behaviors are expected now and in the future. To give good directions:

Be specific.

Tell your child exactly what you want him to do. Avoid unclear directions like “be good”, “straighten up”, and “clean up” because they can mean different things to different people. For example, when you say “straighten up,” you may want your child to stop spitting water, but she may hear “stand up straight.” A specific direction is “Swallow the water.” Sometimes parents will just say the child’s name when giving a direction. For example, if your son, John, is banging a toy on the table, you might say, “John!” and expect him to stop banging and play with his toys nicely. To make this a good, specific direction, you might say, “Stop banging the table. Play nicely with your toy.”

Make it a statement.

Tell your child what to do rather than asking if he wants to do the activity.  For instance, it is better to say “Put your toys away in the closet” than “Would you put your toys away in the closet?”  Sometimes when we give directions, we accidentally make them into questions by using agreement words like “OK”. For example, “Get dressed now, ok?” is a question. Questions give your child the option to say “yes” or “no”. If you want your direction followed avoid questions.

Tell your child the behavior you want to see.

Let your child know exactly what behavior to do. If you are unsure what to say to stop a misbehavior, it may be helpful to think of the opposite of the misbehavior. For example, saying, “Don’t throw that toy!” may stop your child from throwing a toy momentarily but it may not result in what you really want. Instead, you might say, “Please put the toy on the table” or “Please play nicely with the toy.” Click here for more practice.

Give one direction at a time.

Toddlers and preschoolers have a very short attention span. If you tell your child to do more than one thing, he may not be able to remember all of the instructions. By giving one direction at a time, you can make sure the direction is clear, your child is more likely to remember and follow the direction, and you can praise your child more often .

Give the direction in a neutral tone.

If a child does not follow a direction immediately, parents will sometimes raise their voice and repeat the direction. Sometimes, parents end up yelling. This can send the message that the child does not need to follow the direction until the parent is yelling. To avoid the yelling trap, provide directions in a neutral, firm voice with no yelling or pleading. If you consistently use a neutral tone and follow through with consequences when your child does not obey, your child will learn that you are serious the first time a direction is given.

Be polite and respectful.

Most parents want their children to use good manners. One way to help your child learn good manners is for you to model good behaviors like being polite and respectful when giving directions. For example, you can start directions with the word “please.” When used consistently, the word please can serve as a signal to your child that an important direction is about to come. Eye contact and using a calm voice to give the direction are other ways to model good manners.

Use gestures.

For toddlers and preschoolers, it is a good idea to use gestures along with directions so your child has a visual cue of what is expected. For example, if you state, “Please put the toys on the floor in your toy box,” you can point to the toys you want him to put away and then point to the toy box. You could walk from where the toys are on the floor to the toy box while giving the direction.

Choose your words carefully.

How parents word directions can affect who your child thinks needs to act. For instance, only use the word “let’s” in your direction if you plan to help your child. If you say, “Let’s put your toys away,” you should plan to help your child put the toys away. If you want your child to do as you directed, you can just say, “Please put your toys away.”

Give your child choices when possible.

Choices are a great way to develop your child’s independence and teach them important decision-making skills. Directions with limited choices, like only two options, are best for young children. For example, if you want your daughter to get ready for school, you can give her a choice by saying “It is time to get ready for school. You can wear the yellow dress or the jogging suit. Please make a choice and put on your clothes now.” By offering choices, you are giving your daughter the chance to make a decision about what she wants to wear, but you are still communicating that it is time to get dressed. Make sure you are comfortable with whichever choice your child makes.

Provide carefully timed explanations.

Some children may want to know “why” they have to do something. Your child may ask “why” out of simple curiosity or because they want to delay having to listen. One way to avoid this problem is to provide an explanation before giving the direction. For example, “It’s time for us to go to the store. Please put on your shoes.” If your child still asks why, he is probably trying to delay doing what you have told him to do. You should ignore his question and follow through with the consequence if he does not put on his shoes.