20 Ways To Enlist Your Child’s Co-operation
Directing small kids is like herding cats. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out. I have five kids so I feel this acutely, but even my 2-kid friends seem to endure endless frustration when it comes to enlisting their children’s daily co-operation.
‘Come to dinner.’ ‘Stop that’. ‘Climb in the car.’ ‘Get your shoes on.’ ‘Leave him alone.’ ‘Get out the pool.’ ‘Let me brush your teeth.’ ‘Don’t leave the table until I say you can.’
At the moment I’m reading lots about the importance of unconditional love in our parenting and talking to Julie about it. This morning she broke the bad news to me, ‘All this talk about unconditional love is pie in the sky until we can actually get our kids to listen to us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately how bad our kids have become at listening to our simple instructions. They’re deaf to my voice. They may have been better in the past, but somehow we’ve lost their co-operation. And I’m exhausted by it.’
Okay Julie, hard as it is for a male to do, I admit we need to work on this.
So what I have done the last few hours is pull out my notes – a compilation of summaries from tons of books and articles and lectures – and jotted down the best wisdom for herding our deaf cats. As far as I can see, there’s 20 things to keep in mind if we’re going to become top-notch cat-herders, experiencing a semblance of sanity in the parenting task…
1. Use their name.
Open your request with the child’s name, ‘Eli …’ This grabs their attention. Sometimes also add the word ‘listen’ – the combo of the name and the verb communicate to your child that a directive is coming in for landing.
2. Be warm and courteous.
Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. There’s a time to give the straight command, but saying ‘Would you go to your room for bedtime?’ will very often elicit a more heartfelt obedience in your child. Try putting ‘would you’ at the front of your next instruction and see. (By the way, don’t use ‘could you’ which implies that their competence is at stake.)
3. Be confident in your authority.
This point counterbalances the previous one. Our children need us to be in charge. We need to work on our leadership skills, especially as they manifest in communication. Good leaders are masters of inspiring, authoritative speech. When they talk, no one doubts that they know what they’re talking about. Do you talk authoritatively? Are you decisive? Do you stand by your decisions? Confidence evidences itself in calmness. To shout only shows a lack of confidence in your own authority.
4. Get to the point.
Put the main instruction in the opening sentence. Rambling deafens your child. Use short sentences with short words. And please, one instruction at a time. Want a lesson in straightforward speech? Note how kids communicate with each other.
5. Say it positively.
Although it is always best to command in clear and positive terms, often the first thing that comes out of your mouth is a negative. If this happens, make sure to follow your negative commands with a positive one. For example you might say, ‘I don’t want you to hit your brother. I want you to be nice instead.’ But it’s still better to state things in a positive way right away: ‘Please shut the gate’ is better than ‘Don’t leave the gate open’. Say ‘Walk, please’ instead of ‘No running’.
6. Most times, give up explanations.
You probably don’t need to say, ‘It’s time to go to bed; you have a big day tomorrow and you look tired.’ Just say, ‘Let’s go to bed.’ Leave out the explanation. When children resist their parents, they are mostly resisting the reasons. When you leave out the reason, they have less to resist.
7. Don’t instruct from another room.
Going to them conveys you’re serious about your request. Your distance undermines the strength of your authority in their minds.
8. Get as close as possible.
Kneeling or squatting down next to children is a very powerful tool for communicating positively with them. It also allows you to tune in to what they might be feeling, thinking or doing. It also helps them focus on what you are saying or asking for. By the way, if you are close to your child and have his attention, there is no need to make him look at you. Contrary to popular opinion, kids can listen just fine with their ears alone.
9. Use the magic word: ‘Let’s’
Put your request in the context of an invitation to join with you. ‘Let’s get ready for the party’ is three times stronger than, ‘Get ready for the party’. I just tried this on Ivy. She was outside and I called her in. She ignored me. Then I went outside, stretched out my hand and said, ‘Let’s go inside.’ It worked instantly.
10. Personalize your instruction.
Sometimes say ‘I want you to get down’ rather than ‘Get down’. This is especially true for kids who want to please us but don’t like being ordered. Additionally, the clause ‘I want you to’ carries an inbuilt reason for compliance.
11. Work with, not against, your child’s momentum.
Your child is bouncing the ball. They’re swept up in concentration. Nobody engrossed in an activity likes to have to halt what they’re doing immediately. So say, ‘Three more bounces and then come in.’ Or maybe they’re in the pool, immersed in the moment. Rather say, ‘Five minutes more’ than ‘Get out right now.’ As a general rule, whenever they’re doing something they’re caught up in, give them some advanced warning before moving in with more decisive instructions.
12. Don’t use negative emotions to command.
- blaming and accusing: ‘Your dirty fingerprints are on the door again! Why do you always do that?’
- name-calling: ‘You must be a slob to keep such a filthy room. You live like an animal.’
- threats: ‘If you don’t spit that gum out this minute, I’m going to open your mouth and take it out myself.’
- lecturing: ‘I can see you don’t realize how important good manners are.’
- comparisons: ‘Lisa has such beautiful table manners. You’d never catch her eating with her fingers.’
Much better to speak to what is best in our kids – their intelligence, their initiative, their sense of responsibility. Rather demonstrate the kind of respectful communication that we hope our children will use with us, and others.
13. Tap into the power of routines.
Keeping a morning or bed-time routine over a few weeks creates a current that naturally sweeps your child along. If the order is different everyday, you’ll always be working against your child’s inertia.
14. Sometimes defuse resistance by giving them a choice.
‘Stripe shirt or solid shirt?’ ‘Brush your teeth before or after we read this book? A crafty way of doing this is by presenting two choices, one you know they would not like, and the other the one you want them to do: ‘You can stay here and help mom change Sam’s nappy, or come eat.’ I know – it’s naughty, but it works.
15. Direct with principles.
Saying, ‘I’m not your servant, put your shoes back’ makes it them versus you. Saying, ‘Shoes belong in the cupboard’ makes it them versus the principle. Same with punctuality. I ask Eli, ‘What’s the clock saying about when to go?’ There’s far less resistance that way than when I say, ‘You’re running late! Let’s go!’
16. Use ‘when … then’ statements.
Offer a reason for your request that is to the child’s advantage, one that is difficult to refuse. ‘When your toys are picked up, then we can go to the park.’ ‘When your home-work is done then you can play with the iPad.’ ‘When you stop talking, then we can walk the dog together.’ Putting it like this side-steps a potential power-struggle with toddlers and tykes. By the way ‘when’ is better than ‘if’ because it implies that you expect obedience.
17. Distract with humour and imagination.
Talk with an accent. Do something unexpected. Tell the story about the lion who loved to brush his teeth so they would shine in the moonlight.
18. Understand your child’s wiring.
We may be herding cats, but every cat is different. Some kids are like butterflies who bounce from one thing to another. They will be best directed through distraction. Others children love routine and structure. They need reminders of what comes next. Adjust your approach for each child.
19. If you’re not sure they heard you, ask.
‘What did daddy just say?’
20. Put a deadline on repetition.
Kids two-years-old and under need to be told a thousand times, it seems. Their developmental stage means they have difficulty internalizing your directives. By the time they’re 3, the instructions start to sink in. Less repetition is required. And by the time they’re 5 or 6, it might be time for the ‘speak once’ rule to kick in. By that stage, repetition only leads to your child tuning you out, and wondering why you get more upset. If you want to give her one last chance to cooperate, remind her of the consequences for not cooperating.
So Julie, these I propose are the 20 things to keep in mind as we work on herding our cats. Let’s reign this litter in.
But what if our kids argue, disobey, or they’re in a soup of emotion? How do we lead them then? Well, that’s Herding (Scratching) Cats 2.0. I’ll have to deal with that in future posts, and at home too. For now, let’s get Herding Cats 1.0 under our belt.
Also published on Medium.