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Tips for Parents

Tips for Parents:  Tell, Don’t Ask


“We find what we expect to find, and we receive what we ask for.” Elbert Hubbard, editor, publicist and writer


Does this scenario sound familiar?

Parent:  “Johnny (six years old), would you clean your bedroom?”

(2 minutes later) “Johnny, would you pleeeeease pick up your bedroom?”

(2 hours later, after many more times of asking, in an angry voice) “Go do it now!  How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your bedroom!”

What Johnny probably heard was his parent asking him if he would like to clean up his bedroom, as if he had a choice in the matter.  Johnny was essentially responding nonverbally “No, I am too busy right now.” Instead of asking your child to comply, instead tell them what you want.

How can parents gain greater cooperation from their children?  Here are some guidelines:

  • Be specific—“Pick up your socks and put them in the laundry bin.”  This is doable and increases the possibility of success.
  • One task at a time—Large tasks can be overwhelming to a child.  What seems obvious and simple to adults is actually several sequential steps such as putting dirty clothes in the hamper, placing  toys in the toy box, putting trash in the trash can, making up your bed.  Children will respond better if they are told to do one task at a time.  The younger the child, the more important it is to instruct one task at a time.
  • Give the child time to cooperate—Tell, then wait at least 30 seconds but no longer than 90 seconds before the next step.  Parents often will tell a child to do a task and then tell again a few seconds later.  For most tasks (other than stopping something that would be dangerous or harmful) give them at least 30 seconds to hear what you have said and to change gears.  Giving longer than 90 seconds introduces the legitimacy of the child’s excuse “I forgot.”
  • Tell, don’t ask—You are in charge of your home, and some things are not optional.  Just tell and eliminate confusion.  As adults, we can usually tell the difference when our boss is really offering us a choice or giving us instructions using a question to be more polite. Determining this difference is not easy for children. Which questions are they allowed to say “no” to and which ones are really orders?  They need to know the difference by the language parents utilize.
  • It is ok to “ask”—Just be willing to accept “no” as an answer.  “Johnny, would you please brush your teeth?”  “No mom, not tonight.”
  • Please is an ask word – Don’t use please when you are telling them, and when they have no options.  Teach your children to be polite in another context.
  • Be close – Move closer to your child.  Don’t tell them from the other side of the room or another level of the house.  Use a matter of fact, not harsh, voice.  Ideally you want cooperation with a simple telling, so start there.