5 Phrases that Make Your Instructions Less Effective

Father giving a child instructions.
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We’ve all heard, “It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.” That certainly rings true when it comes to giving kids commands. From a young age they learn a great deal about your message based on how you deliver your message.

If your child doesn’t listen to your directions very well, it’s worth examining the way you give you instructions. Here are five little phrases that make your directions less effective and reduce the chances that your child will comply:

1. “Let’s…”

Saying “Let’s pick up the toys,” or “Let’s get your room cleaned,” implies it’s a joint effort. Your child may wait to see how much energy you’re putting into the task before diving in. As a result, it can lead to some confusion when you don’t make a move to initiate a task.

Avoid saying, “Let’s” or similar phrases like, “It’s time for us to put away our crayons,” unless you really intend on helping. If you don’t plan to help, make it clear that the task is your child’s responsibility by saying, “Please pick up your toys.”

2. “Can you…”

Saying, “Can you please put on your shoes?” invites a sarcastic response like, “Yes I can put on my shoes.” After all, you didn’t ask him to do it, you just asked if he could.

At various phases in their development, kids can be literal. And sometimes, they become sarcastic. Their disrespectful responses can lead to arguments and defiance if you’re not careful.

Avoid phrases like, “Would you please…” or “Can you…” which implies you’re asking a polite question, rather than giving a clear command.

3. “…OK?”

Adding OK to the end of your directions also implies you’re asking a question. Saying, “Let’s get ready to go, OK?” may tempt your child to say, “No thanks Mom, I’m still got some more playing to do!”

Although it may seem like a slightly politer way to give your instructions, adding that two letter word makes your instructions sound a little weak. Communicate in a direct manner and make it known that you’re telling, not asking, your child to do something.

4. “I Want You to…”

Starting a command with, “I want you to,” isn’t helpful for a few reasons. Kids don’t need extra fluff and more words. They just need to know what they’re supposed to do. Your child can infer the reason you’re telling him to put his dish in the sink is because you want him to.

It’s not good for your child to think he only has to do certain things because mom or dad want him to. He may assume that if you’re not around, there’s no reason to pick up after himself. Instead, it’s important for him to know, “I put my dishes in the sink because that’s the responsible thing to do,” not because “Mom wants me to do it.”

5. “You’d better…”

Saying something like, “You’d better clean your room right now!” sounds more like a threat than a command.

While warnings can be helpful, threats can backfire.

Use an if…then warning that makes the consequences for non-compliance clear, such as “If you don’t put your bike in the garage, then you won’t be allowed to ride it tomorrow.” Or, use Grandma’s Rule of Discipline to remind your child of the reward he’ll receive for compliance by saying, “After you’re done cleaning your room you can go outside and play.”

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