12 Tried-and-Tested Skills to Get Your Kids to WANT to Do What You Say
Want to know how to get your kids to want to listen to you? Not just because they’ve got to, but because they get to?
In this post I will share the 12 skills you need to do so.
But a disclaimer is in order: just because Julie and I know this list does not mean we remember to use them in the trenches.
Writing this post has, luckily for us, rebooted our approach to herding halflings, speeding up their responsiveness, and reducing our sanity leak 10 or 20 times a day.
I really hope it does the same for you, not just because you read it, but because you apply it.
So, let me say the most basic thing first: there are 2 ways to get our kids to do things we want them to do:
- The first is Command-and-Consequence.
- The second, the subject of this post, is Enlist-and-Entice.
The first is all about positional authority – ‘I am your parent. You will do what I say, when I say. Or else.’
The second is more about herding our kids voluntarily. This mode has the possibility that our child will not go in the direction we hope, and if they do, not as quickly as we hope. But on this path, we don’t penalize them for it. Because it is clear enough to them that we are asking them to do something, not demanding it. It’s non-coercive.
Command-and-Consequence centers around the parent’s skillful use of authority. Enlist-and-Entice is more about the parent’s skillful use of influence.
In the first, the child must co-operate – it’s a full-frontal blow to their wills. In the second, the child wants to – it’s an invitation, a chance for them to flex their choosing muscles.
In a previous post I called these the Pants-Wearer and the Pied-Piper modes of parenting.
I hope it’s clear that there is a world of difference between these 2 modes of directing our kids.
In two posts time I will speak of Command-and-Consequence, but in this and the next one I want to tell you 1) why 2) when and 3) how to Enlist-and-Entice. Here goes…
Why Enlist-and-Entice and not just Command-and-Consequence?
1. Command-and-Consequence is too heavy to be the only mode of directing.
Of course, there are times every day where parents must call the shots. But remember the golden rule?
‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’
Go back to being a kid in your mind. Would you enjoy being perpetually ordered around? Of course not. Kids, like adults, also like some space to exercise some autonomy.
Of course my kids must learn to obey, but the non-stop assault on the wills of our children has some undesirable side-effects: not only does it tear away at the relational threads that hold parent and child together, but it commonly builds up a residue of resentment that could eventually erupt in a toxic volcano of rebellion in the teenage years.
Although there is a time to pull rank, if the only way we ever guide them is through shooting off orders, they will plausibly land up on a shrink’s couch one day, saying that their parent was a tyrant, and now they either cannot take orders from anyone at all without feeling a strong desire to rebel, or they lack the confidence to take initiative.
All because we blocked the development of their autonomy muscle from being flexed.
2. Enlist-and-Entice models to your child the skills they will need to influence others.
We’re not raising robots or soldiers.
We’re raising people who will spend their lives interacting with and influencing other people, whether socially or in sport, or at work.
By developing the skills to enlist your kid’s co-operation, they learn by firsthand experience to do the same to others. They can pass on what they have received.
Think of the bossy-boots that you have known over the years. Sure, there’s a temperamental side to bossiness, but I bet you that most times they were parented in an overly authoritarian way.
My point is that if we’re never willing to be flexible, how we can teach our kids to be flexible?
3. Enlist-and-Entice teaches you, the parent, the virtue of patience.
I am going to let you in on a spiritual secret. It answers the question, Why does God give us kids who yearn for autonomy? The answer is quite simple. It’s to teach us …
Make friends with that word. None of us have time for it, I know. But that’s the problem.
Think of yourself as spaghetti stick. Parenting is God’s way of soaking you in hot water, where you learn that blessed are the flexible for they shall not be broken.
The other day I watched a beleaguered looking dad trying to herd his 4-year old child from the parked car to the school gate. She stopped and begged her dad for a swing. He clearly had been slowed down by her one time too many that morning already, because he immediately cussed. I honestly didn’t judge the dude, but thought to myself, ‘That must be his first kid. He needs another two. That will take those sharp corners off of him.’
Patience really is a virtue, but the only way to learn it is to be slowed down by something or someone about a million times. And Enlist-and-Entice is all about giving your kid a little bit of time to respond to your more indirect leadership, which leads to the next question…
When and when not to use Enlist-and-Entice parenting?
1. Enlist-and-Entice mode is best when you have some time.
Commanding kids effectively means they obey promptly (although you are slowed down when you have to initiate consequences when they don’t obey).
Enlisting, on the other hand, always requires time. Sometimes you get lucky and they respond immediately, but very often they will take 30 seconds or 3 minutes rather than 10 seconds to co-operate.
That’s why holidays, weekends, day-times, play-times are all great chances to work on your enlisting skills.
2. Don’t enlist when there are several back-to-back transitions in the day.
For example, when our kids need to rapidly transition in the suicide hour (or hours in our case) from coming to the table, to eating, to bathing, to getting ready for bed, to brushing teeth, to calming down, to going to bed. That’s just too many sharp turns for us to not expect immediate response from our kids.
Julie and I want our kids to think of us as military generals in those times! If we were to let our kids decide whether they feel like doing any of these things, we would go to bed in a fetal position every night.
Mind you, we still do often enough. But that’s just what happens when you have lots of little kids I suppose.
The 12 Enlist-and-Entice Skills
Julie and I just spent 2 weeks alone with our 5 kids under the age of 8. (Some call it a holiday, we call it running a 24/7 preschool.)
Fresh out of the testing grounds, here is our current list of skills. It includes stuff we have read in the past, as well as skills we stumbled upon in the exhausting challenges of herding little humans.
Enlisting Skill 1: Make sure they can hear you in the first place.
Shouting from another room is far less effective than speaking to them from a meter or two away.
Also, getting on their level, and maybe even touching them as you speak, is much better than speaking from adult standing-height.
Also, start with their name so they know you’re talking to them.
No, you don’t need their eye contact. You want their ears not their eyes.
And then get to the point. As a husband I start to dial out of my wife’s requests when there are too many words (us dudes are so Nokia 3310s that way!) – well, how much more our kids?
If you’re not sure they heard you, simply ask, ‘What did daddy/mommy just say?’
Enlisting Skill 2: Give them a choice, or at least the illusion of it.
Instead of using fiat, you can usher your kids in a direction where they feel like they still chose it.
Sometimes these choices are the difference between a reward and no reward. For example:
- ‘You can get out the bath in a few minutes and use the brown towel, or you can get out now and use the Spider-man one.’
- ‘Here’s your choice: no peas and no desert, or eat the peas and you get desert; whatever you want.’
Sometimes, they merely create the illusion of choice. This works just as well anyway:
- ‘You can walk to the table, or I can carry you there – which one?’
- ‘You can wash your face, or I can do it for you’
Just a tip: if the child delays in choosing, I often add a speed-up choice: ‘If you don’t choose in 5 seconds, then I will choose for you.’ That means that even their non-choice is a choice. This is psychology 101, hey.
Enlisting Skill 3: Catch them doing it right and praise them for it.
I am not a gardener, but I know the rule of the garden: if you want more of something, water it.
It’s the same with kids. When they say please or thank you, or spontaneously share, or come the moment you call, say…
- ‘Well done for saying thank you!’
- ‘Now you know that it feels good to share, hey! Look at the smile on her face.’
- ‘Great listening!’
Based on 3 decades of study, Dr Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, concludes that ‘Giving attention to undesired behaviors increases undesired behaviors, while giving attention to good behaviors increases good behaviors.’
His research shows that always catching children doing wrong and reflexively and constantly responding with nagging, reprimanding and other forms of punishment can actually ‘water’ the bad behaviour!
‘A better way to get children to clean their room or do their homework,’ he summarizes the research, ‘is to model the behaviour yourself, encourage it and, most importantly, praise it when you see it.’
Enlisting Skill 4: Work on the language you use – making sure it’s an ask, not a command.
An ask seldom starts with a verb, and if it is a verb, it’s a more gentle one.
- Why don’t you… go play outside.
- Please… give daddy a moment.
- Would you … go run the bath.
- Who wants to … go to the beach?
- Guess what I have planned next.
Try saying these aloud. Notice that the opening words are not full frontal. They’re more indirect. It’s clear to the child that you’re not demanding they do it.
A command, on the other hand, always starts with a strong verb:
- Come here now.
- Go run the bath.
It’s not just the words. Saying, ‘Pick up the lego now’ is very different to, ‘Would you please pick up the lego.’ There is also a difference in tone. A command has a I-mean-business sound to it. Even if unsaid, the child realizes it comes with a potential consequence attached.
With kids it’s helpful to even verbally accentuate the tone difference.
But it all starts with being sure in your own head whether you’re expressing an ask or a demand. So get clear which it is before you confuse your kid with fussy language and an out-of-sync tone.
Enlisting Skill 5: Try start with the word, ‘Let’s…’
‘Let’s get ready for the party’ is three times stronger at illiciting desire in your child than, ‘Get ready for the party’. It puts your request in the context of an invitation to join with you.
Just now, I just tried this on Charlie (2). I called him to the table. He ignored me. Then I went outside, stretched out my hand and said, ‘Let’s go sit at the table.’ It worked like a charm.
Enlisting Skill 6: Tell them who else is doing it.
It’s amazing how my kids are not interested in doing something with or for me, until they know one of their siblings is interested in it.
I’ve seen Julie mobilize the kids to help her weed the garden. Simply by recruiting one child, who then serves as the magnet for the rest. (It’s the same principle as the toy that has not been touched for weeks, but then one kid picks it up, and soon enough a fight ensues about who gets to play with that toy.)
Although this sometimes backfires, creating competition between siblings can get them moving fast:
- ‘Who wants me to put toothpaste on their brushes first?’
- ‘Here’s the biggest towel. Whoever gets out the bath first can have it.’
Another idea is to tell them which path their superhero or someone they look up to would take.
I heard of some people who, for Halloween, left outside their door both a bowl of sweets and a bowl of apple slices. Then they put up a batman poster and wrote the question: ‘Which one would Batman take?’ You guessed right – the apples were gone before the sweets. It’s the same reason my kids got into eating bananas after we bought the Spider-Man label of bananas.
Enlisting Skill 7: Tap into the power of routines.
Keeping a morning, or after-school, 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.
Though Julie and I are generally weak at creating daily routines in our own lives (and thus our kids lives), it seems like a no-brainer to replace our verbal cues with habitual momentum.
Lucky to those of you to whom creating structure and process comes naturally. Use it on your kids. By the way, I hear that helping kids visualize these routines by means of a simple chart is king.
Enlisting Skill 8: Direct with principles.
Saying, ‘I’m not your servant, put your shoes back’ makes it them versus you. While saying, ‘Shoes belong in the cupboard’ makes it them versus the principle.
Same with punctuality. Make it them versus time, not them versus you. Again Julie and I are challenged in this area, and apparently we have passed it genetically onto one or two of our kids who dawdle and get distracted when speed is of the essence. But I will tell you what hasn’t worked – yelling, You’re running late! Let’s go!’
That makes it me versus them. The key has been teaching them to tell the time, and then to regularly ask them in the mornings, ‘What’s the clock saying about when we must go?’
Enlisting Skill 10: Distract with humour and imagination.
We have all seen kids open their mouths for the fork that magically turns into an airplane.
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.
I just got Fynn to let me floss his teeth by saying, ‘For weeks now there have been stinky germs building smelly houses in between your teeth. Do you want me to break those houses down?’
‘Yes please daddy!’
Enlisting Skill 10: Offer them rewards.
Offer a reason for your request that is to the child’s advantage, one that is difficult to refuse.
- ‘If you help me clean up, I will let you check out my toolkit.’
- ‘If you guys are quiet and don’t wake up the twins, I’ll give you each a biscuit.’
- ‘If you get in bed quickly, I can read two stories not just one to you.’
One of the best ways to word the offer of a reward is with a ‘when … then’ statement…
- ‘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.’
And by the way, positive is just better than negative, so don’t say, ‘If you don’t pick up your toys, then we’re not going to the park’ – put this way, it just lacks motivational umph.
Does that mean we can’t ever use negatives? Nope, for example you can…
Enlisting Skill 11: Alert them to natural consequences if they don’t co-operate.
Most of the skills use pull-factors, but this one uses a push-factor. Moving kids from here to there usually involves painting a compelling picture of there, but in this case it involves etching an undesirable picture of staying here.
I am not talking about enforced consequences like time-out which are part and parcel of Command-and-Consequence parenting.
I am talking about gently highlighting the natural downsides of not going with your suggestion
- ‘If you don’t come now, I will leave you at home.’
- ‘If you’re not in that room, you’ll miss out on the surprise.’
When the consequences are far-off it helps to say them in more picturesque ways:
- ‘If you don’t work hard at school, you’ll find that after school, you’ll have less options. Adult life will be like going to a shop with 3 kinds of cool drinks to choose from, instead of one with 30! Hard work now buys you freedom and opportunities later.’
- If you don’t put sun-cream on, the deep layers of your skin get stabbed to pieces by the suns rays.’
But please, don’t create needless fear in your child. I remember a mom at a tidal-pool saying to her water-shy 3 year old, ‘If you don’t go play by the water like all those other kids, none of them will like you.’ That’s not a natural consequence. That’s just a stuffed up lie.
Enlisting Skill 12: Factor in your child’s wiring.
Parenting may feel like 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.
With strong-willed children (like Fynn and Ivy in the photo above), enlisting is a way of side-stepping the conflict that inevitably comes with commanding such a wilful person.
But beware of overdoing the command mode with your more compliant child, because its just so easy for you. In their case you want to enlist precisely because you want to strengthen their choosing muscles.
Does that help? I hope so.
By the way, here’s what you can expect in my next 4 posts:
- 6 Advanced skills to enlisting kids, once you have the 12 in this post down.
- The 6 steps of Command-and-Consequence parenting (this one is going to be worth about a billion bucks if sanity is monetized)
- What consequences to use.
- How to spend more time with your kids.
If you haven’t yet, like my facebook page so you don’t miss those posts.
Also published on Medium.