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Giving children instructions

Getting the message across

A major part of discipline is learning how to talk to your children. The way you talk teaches your child how to talk to others:

When you give your child instructions, ask yourself two questions first:

  • Is it really important that my child does this?
  • Am I prepared to stop what I am doing immediately and ensure my child does what I have said?

Often, the instructions we give our children are not that important.  Also, we are often unable to follow through and impose some of the rules that have been set.  Try cutting down on the smaller instructions and focus on the bigger ones that you really want to implement.

Before giving your child directions, get down to his/her eye level and get his/her eye contact.  There is no point giving an instruction to the back of a child's head while they are watching television.

Too much talking is a mistake.  Keep your instructions brief, otherwise the child will ‘switch off’.

Instructions such as 'be good' and 'be careful' are vague.  Try to be as specific as you can:

  • Instead of 'tidy up', try 'put your cars in the box please'.
  • Instead of 'be good', try 'play ball with your sister while I'm getting dinner’.
  • Instead of 'don't run', try 'please walk'.
  • Instead of 'don't pick your nose', try 'please us a handkerchief'.

The louder your child shouts, the softer you need to respond.  Let your child rant and rave while you quietly say ' I understand' or 'Can I help?'  Shouting back at a child is like fighting fire with fire.  It is only going to make everyone angry.

Make sure that you give your child sufficient time to process instructions.  Leave a longer gap than you usually would, as it takes more time than you would expect to process an instruction.  Giving more instructions or persuading may cause 'overload'.

Reasoning and explanation may not work well with your child in the heat of the moment.  Save these for a quiet time after the moment has passed.

Between adults, we often give instructions in a question form in order to be polite.  If our boss says 'Would you come into my office?' we know that is an 'order', not a request. We confuse children by asking questions which are actually instructions.  Parents are surprised when they say to their six year old 'Would you like to have a bath now'? And the child says 'no'.

  • Instead of 'Will you pick up your coat', try 'Please pick up your coat.’
  • Instead of 'Are you going to turn off the TV?'  try 'Turn off the TV please'.

If your child has done what you asked, remember to acknowledge this. Just because they are a child does not mean that you should not be polite. They will learn from you. Get into the habit of saying 'thank you', 'that's really helpful', 'what a big boy/girl you are'.  A little praise can make the child far more willing to co-operate!

The Wales Government website has valuable information on how to give instructions effectively. 

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