We may often tell our kids to watch their tone, but this is something we need to do as parents as well. It may seem obvious, but barking orders at our kids never works as well as speaking nicely and using a positive voice to get our kids to do what we need them to do.
Use positive words
It is always best to tell your child what you want him to do rather than what you want him not to do. When you tell him what not to do, he may honestly not know what the better alternative is. So rather than telling your child not to run in the mall, tell him he needs to walk next to you while holding your hand or putting one hand on the stroller. Read more about this in my post on non-conflict training.
In addition to using positive words, explain with a few words why you are asking him to do something. Explaining to your child why he needs to wash his hands is far better than simply barking an order at him to do so. Consider the difference between the following:
Bad: Put your shoes on.
Good: William, we’re going for a walk. Now go put your shoes on.
Bad: Get in bed.
Good: William, it’s time for bed. Go hop in so I can read to you.
Bad: Eat your broccoli.
Good: It may not smell or look great, but broccoli is really good for your body. It will make you healthy and strong. At the very least, you must have one “no thank you bite”.
My one caution with this is that you don’t want to be explaining so much to your child that he thinks he has the power to negotiate with you. It’s fine to tell him you are going for a walk and that he needs to put his shoes on. It’s not okay for him to say he doesn’t want to go for a walk so he doesn’t need to put his shoes on, and thus defying your command.
Use praise and encouragement
While you should always praise your child for a job well done, you should also use praise and encouragement when telling him to do something. For example:
Bad: Put your cup on the counter.
Good: You are always so good at remembering to put your dishes on the counter. Don’t forget your cup.
Bad: Go get a diaper for your brother.
Good: You are such a good helper for mommy. Please run upstairs and grab a diaper for your brother.
Bad: What does this letter say?
Good: You do such a great job sounding out your letters. Let’s see what sound this letter says.
Always make sure your praise is valid. If he consistently fights with you to brush his teeth, you don’t want to tell him that he is good at it. And don’t praise him 3,000 times a day. You want your praise to be valid and given in small doses so it doesn’t become inflated and meaningless.
Find a way to be specific in your instructions to your child. If you want him to clean up his toys, tell him to put the cars in the car bin. Once he’s done that, have him put his books on the shelf. Telling him to clean up is too vague and too big of a job for him to compartmentalize on his own. Break it down for him and he will comply much more willingly.
Also figure out whether he truly understands what you’re saying. Getting William to pre-school can be a stressful time for us. It’s not uncommon for us to be running a little behind. I’ll tell him to hurry and that we’re running late. Recently, it occurred to me that he didn’t equate running late with moving faster. So I told him, “William, we’re running late. That means move faster!” And he did. That’s all it took. I stopped stressing. And we got to school on time.
Use your imagination
Starting around age 3, your child’s imagination will begin to flourish. Rather than lining his cars up in a row, he will drive them through a makeshift tunnel (made of a paper towel tube). Rather than squeezing his toy duck in the bath, he will have it “swim” in the water. As your child enters this phase, you will want to follow his lead and let your own imagination grow, too. This is important so that you can play with him, but also so you can use it to your advantage. Use his imagination (and yours) to get him to do what you want him to do.
The one caveat to this is that you still want your child to obey your word simply because you are his parent and you are his authority figure. To use your imagination to get him to do what you want might seem like coaxing or cajoling him when you simply want him to obey. This is certainly important, but you should always consider alternatives. If you find yourself barking orders at him constantly, try finding a fun and creative way to explain to him what you want him to do. You’ll find that he is much more likely to obey and everyone will be happier for it.
While we should always fulfill our role as our child’s teacher, we should also consider the importance of having fun with our kids. Whether that means sitting down with your child to play Candyland or racing to the top of the stairs, always allow for a dose of fun in your daily interactions with your child. Starting around age 3-4, your child is beginning to form memories he will hold for the rest of his life. Make those memories positive ones.