Thump! Thump! My three-year-old son Jordan was throwing a ball against the wall. "Jordan, please calm down," I called down the hall. Less than a minute later, the thumping was back. "Jordan, chill out, honey," I called again. The thumping returned once more. I jumped up from the computer and stormed into his room. "Jordan Ryan," I fumed, "I have asked you twice to stop throwing that ball against the wall." He looked at me, completely confused. "I you meant to throw the ball more softly." He was absolutely right. I had not asked him directly to stop. Instead I had called out a series of wishy-washy requests that meant nothing to my son. He didn't do what I asked because I had not given him clear instructions.
If a child does not understand what you want him to do, how can he be expected to do it? Often what parents perceive as misbehavior is simply miscommunication.
Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!, says that communication is the most important factor in getting young children to behave. "Parents need to communicate in a way children understand. How you communicate your expectations and wishes can make all the difference," Dr. Severe says.
You've heard the old adage, "Say what you mean and mean what you say." This is often easier said than done, especially when your patience is running thin. But Dr. Severe insists that effective communication and follow-through are essential in getting your child to comply with your requests.
So what are the most effective ways to talk with your young child? The following are six tips for talking to kids in a way they will understand, and, consequently, in a way they will obey.
Give it a Positive Spin
Tell your child what you want him to do, instead of what he shouldn't do. Dr. Severe advises, "Say 'Please dry your tears,' rather than 'Stop crying.' Instead of saying 'Don't whine,' say 'Ask in a polite voice.'" When your child complies with your instructions, praise his efforts. Remember to praise the behavior, rather than the child. If you say, "You are such a good boy when you play nicely with your sister," it implies that your child is not good if he doesn't play nicely. Instead say, "I am proud of the way you shared with your sister. You made a good choice."
Plan Ahead for Good Behavior
Children need to know your expectations in advance. "Let them know ahead of time where you're going, what the rules are, and what will happen if they are good or if they're not," says Dr. Severe. If your child knows what is expected of him before he is in the situation, he will be far more likely to follow your instructions.
You should also take a "bag of tricks" with you on long car trips, in restaurants, and other places where your child would need to sit still for an extended period of time. If you bring something to keep your child busy, you will avoid many potential problems. Dr. Severe stresses that these items are most effective when they are new to your child. Go to a discount or dollar store and buy a handful of quiet toys and books. Store them in a secret place until you really need some quiet time.