“Why won’t he just listen and do what I tell him?”
“Can you please just make her listen to me?”
“I just want him to do what I ask WHEN I ask him, not an hour later.”
If you have ever uttered these phrases then you have felt the frustration of having a child, who, despite your best efforts, sometime just won’t listen. When looking to increase a child’s compliance with parental requests, it is important to keep in mind that it’s hard to make someone else do something they are not so internally motivated to do. This is true even for adults (just think how many of us file our taxes late, despite the fact that they are due on the same day each year) and so as parents it’s important to keep that in mind and let that knowledge help you take a deep breath and stay calm when you hear “no”. Luckily, behavioral psychology, through effective communication strategies and motivational strategies, has come up with a number of ways to increase your chances of hearing “yes”.
Here are some ways to increase the effectiveness of the commands you make to your children:
- Be specific. “Tommy, I want you to put your shoes in your closet now” is more effective than “Tommy, come get your shoes”.
- Tell, don’t ask. “Sarah, it is time to clean up the blocks now” is more effective than “Sarah, how’s about we clean up now?
- Make the request face to face. Going into the living room and looking directly at David in order to tell him it is time to turn off the TV and come to dinner is more effective than yelling at him to do it from another room.
- Be Positive. Tell your child what she should do, rather than what she should not do. It is more effective to tell Molly to “put your hands in your lap” rather than telling her to “stop fidgeting”.
- Say it only once. If you are standing in the room, looking directly at Isaac, telling him he has to take out the garbage, you know he has heard you. Making your request only one time is more effective than repeating yourself.
Here are some ways to increase your child’s external motivation to comply with your requests:
- Set up a behavior chart. Pick 2-3 behaviors you want to see improve, such as “responding the first time mom or dad says to do something”, “putting your dishes in the sink after dinner” or “brushing your teeth every night before bed”. Every time Sasha completes one of the items on the chart, she receives a sticker and after a predetermined number of stickers, she gets a prize. Even if she does not want to brush her teeth because of the increased risk of plaque and cavities, she will want to do it in order to get that new My Little Pony figurine.
- Follow a “command procedure”. Give Louis an instruction and then wait 3 seconds for him to comply. If he complies, praise him for doing so. If he does not comply, give him an “if-then warning”. If you do not come to the table by the time I count to three, then you will lose 5 minutes of TV time tonight. If he does not comply by the time you have counted to three, proceed with the consequence.
- Positive Reinforcement. When your child complies with your request, you can offer positive reinforcement either in the form of a small reward, such as a point on the sticker chart, or verbal praise such as saying “great job coming right to the table when I asked you!”
The list given here is a sample of the types of techniques parents can use to increase a child’s compliance with their requests. There are also times when different techniques or a more intensive plan is necessary, such as when the relationship between the parent and child has become so difficult that outside help may be needed. A psychologist can offer insights into understanding both the child and the parent’s behavior and can provide treatment to help repair the relationship and increase compliance.
Written by Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD