How to Get Your Child to Do What You Ask the First Time

A mother talking to her little girl

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Much to the universal dismay of moms and dads, children often ignore requests and directions from their parents. Sometimes kids don't hear what's being communicated and other times they forget your instructions. Additionally, they might purposefully ignore what they hear the first time. They do this because they don't want to oblige, are too distracted to focus on your request, are waging a form of protest, or are are attempting to continue a desired behavior.

While this listening issue may sort itself out as a child matures, there are steps you can take to set expectations for responsiveness and begin to curb this behavior. This starts with making some adjustments in how you ask your child to do what you say.

Overview

Repeating requests over and over—get up and brush your teeth, start your homework, clean up your room—is an energy burner and source of great frustration for many parents. In many cases, parents fall into a pattern of always making several requests of a child.

You might tell your child to do something, then tell them again 10 minutes later, and again 30 minutes later, only realizing at that point that they still haven't done what you asked. When you have to ask your child to do something for what seems like the umpteenth time, frustration builds up and your reaction is often not a calm one. This is how a simple request becomes a source of tension and conflict.

How to Get Your Child to Comply

Before you get too angry, it's important to note that your child may not be ignoring you on purpose. They really might not have heard you or have forgotten, as kid's working memory is not as efficient as you might expect. Also, they may fully intend to do what you're asking but just play to do it later. But there are a variety of strategies you can use to get your child to do what you ask the first time.

Get Their Attention

Science has proven that when children become immersed in what they are doing, they don't pay attention to what is going on around them. In fact, the research points out that kids under the age of 14 lack "peripheral awareness," which means that if your child is focused on a toy, book, game, or TV show when you ask them to do something, their brain is tuned into that activity and not much more.

That means that, at the very least, you must make eye contact when you request that your child do something. It works best if you can go up to them, touch their arm or rest a hand on their shoulder, and get down to eye level. Encourage them to make eye contact with you in return and repeat what you have just asked them to do. That way you both know that the request was made and heard.

If you are busy in another room, ask your child to come to you before you make your request.

Change Your Approach

If you have approached your child as above and it still takes repeated nagging or begging on your part to get them to do as you say, then you may need a new game plan. Many children have developed several strategies to put things off as long as possible. Kids don’t quite understand the consequences of not doing undesirable tasks and are more motivated by what brings them joy, rather than what has to get done.

The fact of the matter is that most adults wouldn't categorize these activities as fun either. So, children learn to distract parents by whining, bringing up something else to do at that moment, starting an argument, or just downright ignoring the request. To curb your child from stalling or ignoring you, you will need to put a little bit more time and attention in the way you approach the situation.

Be Patient

Breaking a child's tendency to ignore you or resist cooperating when you say something the first time will take time and some practice on your part. However, the results will be less frustration, anger, and stress for you, and hopefully more respect, compliance, and self-discipline from your child.

It's best to start practicing these steps with a request that does not require you to leave the house soon afterward. At the beginning of the exercise, there may be tantrums and lengthy explanations, which all take some considerable time.

Set a Time Frame

Decide in your own mind what you want the child to do and the time frame you will accept for their compliance (immediately, within 15 minutes, etc.) Check in with yourself about the reason behind your choices and whether that actually matches your request.

Be Specific

Don't phrase your request as a question. Tell them specifically what you want them to do in a direct way. For example, rather than asking, "Can you please go brush your teeth now?" say, "Please go brush your teeth right now so you can get to bed on time."

Watch for Compliance

It's easy to give an instruction and pivot back to what you were doing beforehand. At the beginning of this practice, avoid doing so. Check immediately to see if what you requested was done. That way, your child has accountability and knows you are serious about them complying with the request.

Check for Understanding

If they don't begin doing what you asked or don't complete the task, calmly ask them "What did I ask you to do?" Make sure the child is clear about what is expected. If they can correctly tell you, say, "That's good, now please get to it."

Praise Success

If your child does what you asked, tell them what a good job they did and how much you appreciate them taking action. It's easy to forget to do this, but remembering to reinforce the compliance with praise can go a long way in reinforcing this behavior.

Give Fair Warning

If they don't do what you asked after the first or second request, then it's time to explain why you are asking them to do that specific task and what the consequences are if they don't comply. Just repeating “because I said so” is not effective and may lead to other issues with compliance.

If possible, show your child the actual impact of their behavior so that they know that your requests are not arbitrary. An example of this is to let your child know that if they don't do something you have requested, it affects others.

For example: “Please go brush your teeth right now. Bedtime is in 15 minutes. If you don't brush your teeth right now, there won't be any time left to read a story tonight. Daddy really looks forward to reading with you before bed and I know you enjoy reading with him, too."

Be Consistent and Follow Through

If your reasonable request is followed up by more defiance and temper tantrums, then it is time to follow through with the consequence you have set. Be firm and keep at it. Consistency with this step is key to letting your child know that you are serious when you make a request the first time.

These steps may seem ineffective the first several times you employ them but stick with it. Eventually, both of you will get used to the method. You will get better at phrasing your requests firmly and purposefully the first time, and your child will come to understand that you do not ask arbitrary or unreasonable requests of them.

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3 Sources
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