Stop Asking Your Child to Behave

Don't Ask, Do Tell!  Communicating Effectively With Your Child

by Meg Akabas

I once heard a mother whose young child was precariously stepping out from the curb into the street call gently, "Laurie, can you not run into the street?"

Obviously, she didn’t mean to offer her daughter a choice. Yet, many parents unknowingly develop a habit of using the interrogative form when clearly they should be telling instead of asking. 

Don’t get me wrong — I am a big advocate of giving kids options as often as possible, but if you’re wondering why your children regularly don't follow your directions, here's a simple suggestion: Don't ask when you mean to tell!

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Like the mom mentioned above, have you fallen into the habit of using questions when communicating something to your child? If you regularly ask your child to do things that are mandatory, perhaps your choice of phrasing is an effort to avoid seeming bossy.  But, when you say, "Jessie, will you clean up your room?" Jessie hears that she can answer yes or no. When she finds out that she doesn't have a choice, she's confused. Telling her to clean up her room would be a better option for both Jessie and Mom.

It is also best to be as specific as possible when giving instructions. "Clean" is vague; a better direction would be: "Jessie, please pick up your clothes from the floor and put them in the laundry and then make your bed. Make sure you're done before we leave for your soccer game." 

Parents can find themsleves caught in the "questioning trap" as early as the baby and toddler stageDo you ask your baby, "Will you lie still for mommy?" when you're changing her diaper? If so, try (in a gentle, but firm voice), "Please lie still for mommy," or "Mommy needs you to lie still right now."   Instead of asking your toddler, "Would you like to put on your shirt?," substitute a kind but definitive "Please put on your shirt now." 

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Also, be careful not to tag on an “OK?” at the end of your directions. “Brush your teeth before bed, OK?” is still a question.

Be clear with your child about what's optional and what's not. For example, if you know the temperature is below freezing and you want your child to put on her jacket, don't offer a choice. If the weather outside is moderate, then it may be appropriate to offer a choice, by saying, "The temperature is a bit cool today so bring your coat — you can put it on now or wait until we are outside to decide if you need it.” 

These slight differences may seem trivial, but remember that children are happiest and most cooperative when they live in a world that is predictable and secure. So, as parents we must be conscious that there's a difference between asking and telling and choose the appropriate choice of wording in order to achieve the desired outcome.  By being clear with your words, you are doing both yourself and your child a favor. Yes, the way we communicate with our children is really that powerful.

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MEG AKABAS is the founder of New York City-based Parenting Solutions™, a consultancy designed to help parents discover the joy in parenting, and the author of 52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom: Effective Strategies for Raising Happy, Responsible Kids.  She has been awarded the "Parenting Educator Credential" from the New York State Parenting Education Partnership and serves on the NYSPEP steering committee.  Meg's expertise includes more than 20 years of firsthand experience as a parent of four and lifelong student of child behavior and development. For more information, please visit




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