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Obedient children

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Frustrated in your efforts with the behaviour problems and development issues of your young boy or girl?  Whether it be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 56 or 7 year old, parenting expert Diane Levy provides advice how to get your toddler or young children to do as they are told, and hence develop obedient, compliant children.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children did as we asked the first time? Or even without being asked? How many times, from six months to six years, do you think you will have asked your child to let you dress her or to go and get dressed?

Wouldn’t it be great if our child did as she was told?

And the point of this is….?

When we ask a child to do something we have short-term, medium-term and long-term objectives.

A short-term objective is when we need to get something done which is usually a simple and often-repeated task:

  • Let’s get you dressed, please
  • Do up your seat-belt, please
  • Go and get your homework, please
  • Pack your bag for tomorrow, please

Let’s deal with ‘please’ right now. “Please” won’t make the least difference to whether or not your child carries out the request, but you are modelling (the most effective way to teach a child) good manners and that can never go amiss. And of course, if our child does what we have asked of them as soon as possible, it saves a great deal of arguing, nagging and whining – on both sides.

Our medium-term objective is to have our children do as they are told. If your child spends a lot of energy resisting simple requests, she is using up the time and energy she could better use for learning new skills. How many requests do you think you will ask of your child before she leaves home?! Getting them to do as they are told now, means you will save yourself some sanity for the future.

And long-term? A child who is extremely non-compliant eventually begins to sabotage the relationships in her life with parents and family, her learning opportunities and she may have fewer and fewer friends. A child who learns the self-restraint needed to be reasonably compliant will not only have better relationships and be able to deal with the ordinary frustrations of life, but is also on the road to becoming a self-disciplined adult.

It’s good for kids to be good

There’s a relationship between old-fashioned goodness and health and well-being. In his book, “20 Things I Want My Kids to Know”, Hal Urban says that as human beings, we need to be good; it’s the most essential ingredient of emotional and spiritual health.

When I work with parents to help them get their children to do as they are told, I often have a puzzled parent a week or so later saying to me, “I don’t quite understand. We’ve been so much tougher on her and she seems so much happier!”

The truth is our children feel happier when they are doing what is expected of them. They feel more comfortable when they are getting it right and that feels right to them.

Getting action – ASK – TELL – ACT

It all begins when we ASK our child to do something.

Now that we have made a request, the next thing that should happen in our child’s life is that she carries out that request. Otherwise we teach her that if we ask her to do something she does not have to do it.

When the child complies we can show our appreciation; ‘thank you,’ ‘that was a big help,’ – this is an effective way to let our child know that we value their effort.

Likely responses

Instant compliance will happen sometimes, but often you will be dealing with non-compliance to a simple request (e.g.,’ take those cups out to the kitchen, please’) in various guises such as:

  • It’s not my turn
  • Why do you always ask me?
  • It’s too hard
  • I don’t want to
  • Will you help me
  • I’ll just finish this 500 piece puzzle
  • Those aren’t my cups

And then there are the non-verbal responses:

  • Moan
  • Grizzle
  • Shrug Dad or Mum out of the way
  • Laugh at him/her
  • Ignore

The Three Cons

In her book “Kids are Worth It,” Barbara Colorosa talks about the three cons that children will come up with when asked to do something they don’t want to do.

First, there is the angry response. “It’s not fair. It’s not my turn. I’m not going to. You can’t make me. You’re not the boss of me”, any or all of which are delivered in an angry, belligerent tone of voice.

These are the sorts of children with whom we wind up thinking “It’s much simpler to do it myself.” That is true. It is much easier to do it yourself, but your children are missing out on essential skills and you are teaching them that intimidation works.

Second, there is the sad response (delivered in a pathetic whine): ‘It’s not fair,’ ‘I did it yesterday,’ ‘Why do you always ask me?’ ‘It’s too hard.’ These children are the masters of guilt induction. Remember though, that more often than not, parents are fair and distribute tasks more or less evenly and according to ability.

The third style of con is harder to pick up. It involves distancing. Your child goes deaf, turns to do something else, looks at you blankly as if you just asked something incomprehensible or laughs and runs away. We’re then left feeling dis-empowered.

Telling is better than yelling

There’s no point calling out from a distance. ASK once, from wherever you are. Wait ten seconds. After ten seconds you’ll know whether the answer is YES or NO.

If the answer is NO, you need to move from ASK to TELL. Move right next to where your child is, stand tall and say firmly, “I’d like you to take those cups, now” and wait for 10 seconds.

You don’t need to shout, you don’t need to reason, you don’t need to persuade. You have just given your child a very powerful message that you intend her to do as you have asked. Just this action – going close, asking powerfully and waiting – will get you compliance about 80% of the time.

The power of TELLING

Firstly, you are not calling from a distance. You have invaded your child’s space. The fact that you have taken the trouble to go over means your child knows that you’re serious.

Secondly, you are using your height advantage, which is another reason to establish ‘Mummy Power’ or ‘Daddy Power’ while our children are young (and shorter than us!).

Thirdly, you should use strong eye contact. Stare steadily while you say, ‘I want you to do that now.’ Avoid saying “Look at me while I’m talking to you.” You’ve just added a second request before your child has complied with the first request.

Fourthly, you should use a quiet voice. If you yell at your child, you are showing her that you are out of control. When you use a quiet voice, you are demonstrating that you are in control of you, so you are far more convincing as the person in control of her.

From NO to NO WAY

Some children just don’t believe you. They may be very strong-willed or their experience up till now may be that if they put up enough argument or fuss or distance, they don’t have to do as they are asked.

If you have ASKED, waited 10 seconds, moved to TELL powerfully, waited 10 seconds and your child has not complied, she has graduated from NO to NO WAY.

Escalating behaviour

However she demonstrated NO – mad, sad or distancing – you can expect that she will escalate that behaviour.

If her initial response was anger, she will escalate to greater anger. She may shout or push you out of the way.

If her initial response was sad, she will escalate to distress. She may be so overcome with grief that she collapses in hysterical sobs. Don’t buy into it.

If her initial response was to ignore you, she may now turn away from you, move away from you – not in the direction of the cups – or even run away.

Your child is being rude and offensive and the time for requests is over. It is time to take action. ASK – TELL – ACT.

Hand the problem over

Now it is time for us to think ‘I’ve asked you to do something. Nothing else – in the way of goods or services from me – is going to happen until that is done.’

The most powerful action to show our child we mean it is to put emotional distance between ourselves and our child. This way we hand the problem over to our child and our child has to wrestle with the problem. They have to contend with the tension between “If I don’t want to do it” then “It looks as if I’m stuck here till I do.”

The actions you can take are covered in more depth in the Time Out article.

Remember, compliance is a habit

The best reason I know for developing our children’s compliance habit is so that we can enjoy each other’s company.

If our children are doing more-or-less what we ask them, most of the time, both our lives and their lives become much simpler and we can both enjoy each other’s company more. Our children become pleasant to be with and we will choose to spend more time with them.

Therefore our child’s thinking – in response to a parental request – needs to be changed from “maybe I will and maybe I won’t” to “I may not want to do that, but I will.” Bliss!

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Diane Levy

Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents.

She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

  • mahi

    if the parent does not keep the child in a correct way  it is the mistake of the parent. if the parent says that we are trying to keep the child in a correct way ,the result is not good,then we  can blame the child.a small message for the parents ,do not blame the child always

  • veena@littledinos

    A very informative article. I would definitely agree with the part were you should use your quiet voice with your child as the child anyway doesn’t respond yelling after 3 or 4 turns.

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