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5 Tips to Help Parents Clear Up Instructions

March 23rd, 2017     By Bridget Barnes | Director of Common Sense Parenting at Boys Town

Family, Parent-Child Relationships

This blog was originally featured on

Most parents know they should give children clear instructions, but sometimes this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Below are some helpful hints on how to give kids instructions that will make both you and your child more successful – no matter the circumstances.

1. Get their attention. Go to your child or call them to you. Get down on their level and talk in a normal or calm voice while making eye contact. You can get your child’s attention by calling his or her name. This helps your child focus and listen to your instructions. Whether it’s your teen or your toddler, it is important for parents to get their child’s attention as the first step in communication. This is especially true when you’re frustrated after telling your child several times to do something and they ignore you.

2. Be brief and concise. Instructions should be short and to the point. The fewer words, the better. Keep it simple and short. Don’t give long lists. If there are too many words, it becomes more difficult for the child to know or remember what is expected. The instruction should also be free of vague words that often lead to your child’s interpretation. Most parents have given their children a chore to do or task to complete and found the outcome to be entirely different from their instruction. Why does this happen? It might be your instructions.

3. Say what to do. Let your child know what you want them to do rather than not to do. When we only describe the negative behavior – “don’t roll your eyes” – we still leave many other options available (talking back, looking away, etc.). Tell your child what you want them to do: “Look at me and listen.” This clear instruction does not allow for any other options. Sometimes we forget to tell children what to do, and we focus on telling children what not to do. This is a waste of time and sets children up to fail. Also, mean what you say. Do not ask your child to do something unless you mean it. Do not say, “Will you go brush your teeth?” If you put your instruction in the form of a question, this implies they have a choice. Instead, tell your child in a firm but pleasant voice what you want them to do. You should say, “Go brush your teeth right now. Check back in five minutes.”

4. Be realistic. Give your child instructions you know he or she can follow. To set realistic expectations, make sure your instructions follow four key rules: 1. Is the instruction age appropriate? 2. Teach your child exactly what to do. 3. Have your child consistently demonstrate what to do. 4. Model the instruction for your child. Children sometimes don’t follow instructions because they feel overwhelmed and frustrated because the challenge or expectation of the instruction is beyond their ability.

5. Reward compliance. Let your child know that he or she did a good job following the instruction. Praise your child. The more you praise your child, the better the chances that he or she will follow directions in the future. Parents who reward their children for following instructions with praise or privileges that cost no money are more likely to have children who are willing to following instructions.

You can find more information including parenting tips and Common Sense Parenting class information here.

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