What Not to Do When Teaching Kids to Follow Directions

What Not to Do

When I heard one of my charges needs to work on listening to his teacher in school, I realized he doesn’t listen to me well at home. I have to repeat myself often before he does what is asked of him. Should I really need to remind him “upteen times” to do normal daily activities like changing into his baseball uniform, or brush his teeth and hair, or put his completed homework in his backpack? Perhaps if I can help teach him to listen to me and follow my directions at home, he will learn to better listen and follow directions at school. So, I searched the internet for ideas to get kids to listen and follow directions. This week I will share what I found.

Lisa Collier Cool is a widely published writer and mother of three. In the June 1996 issue of Working Mother magazine her article “How Kids Learn to Follow Directions” described the results of a study by Edward Christophersen, PhD. Christophersen. Christophersen is the author of Beyond Discipline : Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime. He, and other experts, advise that the methods parents typically use to get children to listen are ineffective. Here are some of their advice of how to steer clear of some common mistakes.

Don’t Say “Don’t” A negative instruction like “Don’t let me come home and find that you still haven’t done your homework!” is much more likely to be ignored than one that gives a positive alternative, such as “Please get started on your homework right after you eat your snack this afternoon.” Emphasizing what [the] child is not to do has pitfalls, Chistophersen says. Kids under age frequently misunderstand negate directions -— particularly if they are shouted —- and may hear “Don’t bring that wet dog into your room” as a command to “Bring the wet dog into your room.” Older children may find that disregarding a “don’t” can be more rewarding than obeying it: They get your attention that way.

Reasoning Gets Little or No Results: Explaining why certain actions are undesirable -— “If you leave your toys lying around, you might trip over them and hurt yourself” -— has no impact on children under age six, Christophersen finds. Your words simply go in one ear and out the other. “A young child doesn’t relate to abstract future consequences, so he’s not likely to be motivated by a warning like this. Since he isn’t hurt right now, he doesn’t feel there’s anything to worry about.” With an older child, a detailed list of reasons for every rule can spark a tedious debate or, at best, create short-lived compliance, he adds. You might get a 10-year-old to return a book to the library on time by explaining that if she doesn’t, she’ll have to pay the fine out of her allowance. However, she’ll probably forget to return the next book she borrows because at this age, dipping into her piggy bank isn’t nearly as painful as wasting playtime to walk to the library.

The More You Nag, the Less Kids Listen: It’s very easy for parents to slip into the “nagging and shouting syndrome,” observes psychotherapist James Windell, MA, author of Children Who Say No When You Want Them to Say Yes. “When a child doesn’t respond the first time she’s told to do something, parents often repeat the request over and over until they finally lose their temper and start shouting. The message you give your child when you let her tune you out many times is that there’s no need to pay attention to you until you’re screaming.”

Avoid Empty Ultimatums or Threats: Making impulsive threats when a child doesn’t listen, such as “Do this right now, or I’m going to ground you!” is another common mistake parents make, Windell says. This can create a no-win situation, because kids resent being forced to give in. As a result, they often get angry and end up focusing on that anger instead of concentrating on what you asked them to do.


  1. Ooops I guess I do all the stuff I'm not supposed to do.

  2. I am really guilty of making threats of taking away video games and then never do it. It just gets so frustrating to have to ask kids to do the same thing over and over. I look forward to your tips this week.

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