I was teaching a parenting seminar a few weeks ago and showing parents how to insist that their children do as they are told. A parent asked, “But isn’t that intimidation?” It was a totally reasonable question and one that I was happy to address. It certainly set me thinking. “Why should children do as they are told?”

In our grandparents’ generation, this question would never have been asked. Way back then, it was taken for granted that a parent was entitled to expect compliance to a reasonable request and that a child did as asked simply because a parent asked them to. This generation of parents (and children) are not so easily satisfied with, “because I said so.” They expect – not unreasonably – a rational and carefully thought through explanation.

Reason One – For our children’s safety

Today, when parents think about compliance, often the first reason that they come up with are safety reasons.

  • “I need him to stop before he runs onto the road”
  • “If he doesn’t stop pulling the cat’s tail, she might scratch him”
  • “I need him to take me seriously when I say that driving when he’s tired is dangerous.”
  • “She won’t listen to me when I tell her that teenage boys are only after one thing.”

It is true that a child who is compliant to ordinary requests will usually respond to the urgency in a frightened parent’s voice. It is also true that a non-compliant child will frequently ignore the call of a desperate parent. So “for our child’s safety” is a valid reason to teach our children to do as they are told. But it is by no means the only one.

So here are some more reasons why children should do as they are told.

Reason Two – It saves a lot of parental time and energy

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did what we asked them to 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 children to let you dress them or to go and get dressed? How many times from six to sixteen do you imagine you will be saying “Go and do your homework”? Wouldn’t it be great if our children did as they were told? Think of the time and energy we would save.

Reason Three – Children need to tolerate the ordinary frustrations of life

In order for our children to be compliant, they have to tolerate the frustration of doing something they would rather not do. Maybe they would rather not do it at all or maybe they would rather do it when they have finished the next ninety minute long DVD. Whatever it is, they certainly don’t want to do it right away.

In overcoming their resistance to complying with an ordinary request, our children are learning to tolerate and come to terms with the ordinary frustrations of life. By becoming obedient to simple parental requests, they are not only on the path to becoming self-disciplined; they are also on the pathway to becoming emotionally mature. It is the mark of an emotionally mature person that they can make themselves do the things that they would rather not do but know are necessary.

By insisting that our children do as they are told to simple requests, we are helping them to develop into mature, independent, young adults.

Reason Four – Children need to become socialized

As human beings, we are social creatures and most of us feel the innate need to be part of a social group. Originally, we lived in tribes and were mutually dependent on each other. Later on, we lived in villages and were both dependent on and accountable to each other. Our families were larger and more intergenerational than today and so issues of compliance were learned through observation of children slightly older and were expected and enforced by all responsible adults of the social grouping.

Today, where a family group may be as small as one parent and one child, the task of socializing our child to fit into the various groups they will need to be part of over a lifetime, begins at home. In teaching our child the skills of socialization, our starting point needs to be that they do as they are told. Then they are able to follow our leadership about how to behave around others.

Reason Five – Our children need to adapt

Our children need the ability to fit in with several situations so that they can enjoy and learn. They need to be able to function socially with adults, with older children, with peers and with younger children in family and other social situations.

They need to fit in at playgroups and kindergartens and schools and youth groups. They need to fit in at ballet and soccer and swimming and playgrounds.

In all of these situations, they will fit in far more easily if they do as they are told to simple adult requests and if they can respond positively to suggestions from older children and from peers. They need to recognize both the spoken and unspoken rules of social behaviour.

In turn, they need to be able to make their own requests politely and with conviction, so that others respond to their appropriate leadership.

Reason Six – The short-term objective

We may only be aware at the time of the short-term objective, which is to get something done. Usually it is some simple and often-repeated task:

  • Hold still while I change your nappy
  • Let’s get you dressed, please.
  • Do up your seat-belt, please.
  • Go and get your homework, please.
  • I need to know where you are going and when you will be home
  • Pack your bag for tomorrow, please

In every person’s day, child or adult, there are hundreds of tiny tasks that need to be done. Our insisting that our children “do it now and do it quickly” for the small tasks of life, does seem to be the most efficient way and, for our children to learn to do as they are told over the tiny tasks, makes life much more pleasant.

Reason Seven – Do sweat the small stuff

Parents who are struggling with their children’s behaviour often quote to me Richard Carlson’s title, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” They feel that should deal with the truly awful behaviour and not worry about simple compliance to tiny tasks. I couldn’t disagree more.

Our parenting days are made up of lots of tiny “small stuff” requests like the ones listed. Two things to think about:

First Point: Think about how many times you will change your child’s nappy from six months to toilet-trained. Think about how many times your baby to young adult will need to get dressed. Think about how many times a school bag will need to be unpacked or packed. Do you really want to battle this each time or do you want to get it sorted out once and for all?

Second Point: It doesn’t matter what it is about (nappies, dressing, school bags etc) it all boils down to doing as told to simple requests.

“Sweating the small stuff” is the big stuff.

Reason Eight – the medium-term objective

Learning to do what they are told as children is an important step on the road to being a self-disciplined adult. 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 that are useful to her rather than refining an old skill — resisting compliance — that is ultimately bad for her.

If she has already resisted getting up, having a nappy change, getting dressed, sitting down for breakfast and having her teeth cleaned and it is only 7.45 am, what sort of a day do you think you are in for?

If he has already resisted getting up, getting dressed, packing his bag, making his bed, getting out the door in time, what sort of a child do you think you are sending to school? ….. is it a child who is ready to benefit from the wisdom and experience of the classroom teacher, or a child who is ready to resist a new set of requests, such as ‘Take out your books,’ ‘Find your pencil,’ ‘Stop hitting Jason,’ ‘Start writing’?

Reason Nine – The long-term objective

A child who is extremely non-compliant eventually begins to sabotage the relationships in her life. Her parents may be endlessly forgiving but exhausted, her teacher looks forward to weekends and her friends are likely to get sick of her too.

When families approach me worried about their child’s progress at school or lack of friends, the first question I am likely to ask is, ‘What is her compliance like?’ If the response is something like ‘Well, she is very strong-willed,’ I am likely to recommend that we look first at her compliance.

A child who is reasonably compliant will have better relationships with parents, teachers and friends, but is also on the road to becoming a self-disciplined adult. This is our long-term objective. If we accept that we are on a continuum of development from an undisciplined baby to a self-disciplined adult, learning to do as told is a very important part of that journey.

Reason Ten – We will like them a whole lot better

One of the toughest parenting moments most of us will go through – probably several times – is when we do not like our children. This is separate from loving them. Of course we love them. Even when we are going through our blackest moments of “I do not like you. You are behaving horribly. I’m not even sure that I want to be in the same room as you,” we keep on clothing and feeding and educating and guarding their safety and rapidly forgiving them. That’s parental love.

“Liking them” is another matter. If they fight you every step of the way, if they are rude, cheeky and non-compliant, if you are in a patch of waking in the morning with a sinking feeling of “Oh no! Not you again!”, it is time to do something about their compliance.

If our children are reasonably compliant, we can enjoy their company. If we enjoy their company, we will want to spend more time with them.

“So that they are pleasant people whose company we can enjoy,” is the best reason that I can think of for teaching our children to do as they are told.


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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."

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Strong Willed Child

Hi Diane, I have a very strong willed 4 year old girl. We seem to bang heads at just about every request i give her. I have tried pre warning her that bath time is coming up or we need to do her hair soon. Or I try and give her a choice, if she would like to sit in the bedroom or lounge to get hair done. I just read your book on Time Out. I can tell with 10 seconds of asking then going over to tell her to do something she will not. I tried ignoring her… Read more »


Hi Diane, My husband and I have a charming, amenable, sunny-natured 2-year-old son, and a very clever, intense, extremely strong-willed 4-year-old daughter, plus baby #3 due in August. I have been reading your book, “Of Course I Love You…”, on the recommendation of a psychologist we saw (but could only afford to go once). I am finding it very interesting but of course I’m having trouble reconciling it with other parenting authors I’ve read so far (e.g. Kurckinka, Karp) – although I certainly have the feeling that I have been trying very hard for a long time and yet I… Read more »


I should also add your advice seems quite different from that in my Playcentre Positive Guidance training. Ironically I often get complimented on my parenting, which I do my best to protest!


Thanks, I agree with this post whole-heartedly, but am left thinking, “where do I start?!” Do you have any references to some simple small step of how we can turn things around? I have a nearly 6 year old girl who I have to confess have just “let things go”, because it just causes so much stress and major melt-downs. Just one small example – I have chosen to let her do her hair each day for school. Not my preferred style, but tidy. Then I decided I was the mother so I could do it sometimes. I did it,… Read more »

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