My Kids Aren't Following Directions

Wouldn’t it be nice if we gave directions and our kids followed them… the first time…every time? Now come back to reality. Let's chat about kids who aren't following directions. 

By Laura Vogel, Ph.D. Director of Early Childhood Therapy | Apr 08, 2016
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This post is part of our "I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas" series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we gave directions and our kids followed them… the first time…every time? I can’t imagine the peaceful household I would have if my 16 year old actually put his clothes away the first time I asked. When kids don’t follow directions, it can be really frustrating. But there are reasons this is a shared parenting struggle, and hopefully I can shed some light on this that will allow these exchanges to feel like less of a “problem.” 

First, as my colleague Al Sauermann pointed out in this post, kids need to know why we are asking them to do what we’re asking. If I learn about a new procedure that I have to follow at work and I have no idea why, I’m not going to be thrilled to comply. I’ll groan about it, try to avoid it, put it off, and generally feel like I’m being oppressed by this new, inconvenient procedure. If, on the other hand, I understand the purpose of the policy and know that it’s being implemented for my safety, or for the betterment of my workplace, or some other reasonable situation, I’ll be more inclined to follow it. The same is true for kids.

Also, we have to think about whether kids know what we are asking them to do. It may be perfectly clear to us what “clean your room” means, but if we haven’t actually articulated that or shown the child our standard of a clean room, he may truly not know how to complete the direction he was given. Many times when a child isn’t following directions, it’s because he actually doesn’t have the capacity or doesn’t understand our expectations.

Another important element to consider is whether you’re asking your child to do tasks that are developmentally appropriate. You’ve heard me talk about the importance of breaking down tasks. A young child might only be able to handle one direction at a time. Something like, “Choose your clothes and get dressed” might be way too much for a three-year-old. But holding up two pairs of pants and asking, “Which one do you want to wear?” is more appropriate. Then, when you follow that decision with step-by-step instructions for the task of getting dressed, your child is more likely to follow through. I also caution parents to not fall into that familiar trap of thinking, “He should know how to do this – I shouldn’t have to tell him.” Just because a child has done something once, does not mean he has mastered the skill. If you find yourself repeating requests over and over, this may be a sign that your child needs more support.  All of this does take more work on your part than giving a direction and walking away, but it also eliminates the headache that comes when you re-enter the room and find your son still hasn’t started moving toward his dresser at all.

I also encourage you to consider how often you’re asking your child to follow directions. Much like the child who can only handle one direction at a time, most children need opportunities to make some decisions on their own. If a child feels as though you are rapid-firing commands at her all day, she’s eventually going to tune you out. There are a lot of things we expect our children to do, and it can be tempting to give them a lot of direction. But, when we build in the capacity for choice, children develop a greater sense of self and accomplishment. For example, when you ask your child, “Do you want to pick up your clothes first or take out the trash first?” you are giving her a choice. There’s no wiggle room about your expectation, but this is a different conversation than “I need you to pick up your clothes and then I need you to take out the trash.” Many children stop listening right about the time they hear ‘AND THEN….”   As parents it’s important to remember that children follow A LOT of directions all day long at school. So at home, if you are feeling as though your child isn’t listening to you, consider what she has been doing all day. Has she had an opportunity to relax, play, enjoy you, or have alone time? We all need some part of our day in which no demands are being placed on us. How frustrating is it to hear “What’s for dinner?” the minute you walk in the door from work? You need a few minutes to reset. Children are no different. And in fact, they probably need more time to reset.

I also understand there are times when we need our children to follow directions for their safety and there really is no space for choices. However; particularly for young children, instructing them about what you want them to do (as opposed to what you don’t want them to do) is typically a more successful approach. It’s easy to hear the difference in tone between: “The bed is not for jumping on – you may jump on the floor” rather than, “Get off the bed.” Or, “You must use gentle hands with your sister” rather than, “Stop hitting her.”  Oftentimes our tone, facial expressions and attitude can impact how our children follow directions and what they internalize.

I can’t talk about following directions if I don’t talk about consistency. When kids are not consistently following rules, it is often because parents are not consistently enforcing the rules. If you’re asking your child 16 times to put on his shoes, chances are, he’s not really going to take you seriously the 17th time.  I encourage parents to make requests no more than twice. If you think a third time is necessary, it is important to approach your child and help facilitate the request.

And my very last point is that sometimes we have to let it go (yes – I know you now have that song stuck in your head).  Is it really that important if your child put his shoes on the wrong feet? If he struggled for three minutes to get those little feet in, adjust those Velcro straps just right and felt accomplished, and the first thing he hears is he did it wrong, that could be devastating. It might even create a pattern that makes him LESS likely to follow your instructions next time  So, if he works hard to follow directions but doesn’t do it quite to your standard, don’t criticize in front of him. Wait until he’s gone to bed before re-loading the dishwasher the right way, or let him leave the house with his pants on backwards. Our kids won’t follow directions every time. They just won’t. Nor do we really want or need them to – but if we give them appropriate directions, respond consistently, allow them to have some choices and give them space to fail at times, we are creating the best environment for success.