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Parenting Education > Getting Your Child to Obey

Getting Your Child to Obey
Giving Effective Commands

David W. Kidder, Ph.D.
Counseling Psychologist
893 Brownswitch Rd., Suite 207
Slidell, LA 70458-5353
Drkidder.com 985-649-2011




1. Some children and parents are born with temperamental dispositions, hyperactivity, impulsivity, irritability.

2. Children disobey as a way of establishing their independence.

3. Single parents, parents under stress from other problems cause stress in the children through insecurity, anger, resentment.

4. Children may imitate others who are disobedient.

5. Poorer quality parent-child attachment and relationships. Less quality time spent with the child. Quality time involves pleasurable interactions for both parent and child.

6. Unpredictable and inconsistent consequences of children's behavior.

7. Reinforcement of disobedient behavior.

8. Parents provide less attention and reinforcement for prosocial and appropriate behaviors of the child.

8. Parents choose not to spend time with the child because they have a history of unpleasant interactions with the child. As a result, the child is ignored even when he or she is behaving appropriately.

10. Parents may not monitor and supervise their children sufficiently. There could be several reasons for this. Parents may both work long hours and are not available. Parents may be stressed out themselves and not have the energy or patience to attend to their children. They may also just simply not care enough to supervise their children. Finally, one of the most frequent reasons is that parents avoid attending to and ignore their child's unacceptable behavior in order to avoid another confrontation which is unpleasant and punishing to the parents.

11. Parents may actually punish prosocial and appropriate behavior. Because of a build up of resentment for lack of compliance in the past, parents may give back-handed compliments: "It's about time you cleaned up your room." Instead of giving the child praise, the child is reminded of past failures, and is punished.

12. Parents and children both tend to use punishing and threatening communication and behavior in order to influence the other to do what they want. When a parent gives a child a command to go clean his room, the child will be defiant, obnoxious, threatening in order to avoid the task. Sometimes this is successful in that the parent gives up or at least can not get the child to obey immediately. In this case the child's behavior is reinforced because he avoids the unpleasant task and is able to continue the reinforcing activity (watching TV)that he or she was engaged in. This success increases the frequency that the child will engage in this noncompliant and defiant behavior in the future when a parent gives a command to carry out an unpleasant task.

Now some parents will not only not give in to the child's defiance, but will increase their voice volume, threats, and eventually use of physical force in order to get the child to comply. When the child obeys after this parental coercion, the parent is reinforced or rewarded by the cessation of the child's disruptive behavior. As a result the parent will increase the frequency and speed with which he or she uses extreme measures. Both parent and child will often escalate their behaviors very quickly, sometimes ending in physical abuse.


It is desirable in a home or school environment if adults ask politely that children under their supervision complete a tasks. Adults should accompany requests with please and thank you to model good manners. For many children who want to please adults, this is all that is necessary to gain compliance. For others who may not be motivated to please the adult or who are very unhappy about the task, adults may need to use some type of tool to gain compliance. Sometimes a smile and pat on the shoulder, using some humor, or making the task into a game will add incentive to comply with the adult's request. However, many children are persistently oppositional and defiant. If the above approaches do not work well, try some of the following suggestions which have been found effective with children who have inattentive, impulsive, and oppositional behavior on a regular basis.

(1) Increase your reward value to your children. Spend a small amount of quality time with your child each day. Quality time means time when both you and the child are enjoying pleasant interactions. This may be talking, playing a game, but not watching TV or some other activity in which you are not interacting. During this time try not to correct, criticize, give commands, or ask questions. Simply observe the child, pay positive attention to the child, praise, compliment, or make neutral statements.
Be sure that you are communicating with your child in a positive, reinforcing manner at least three times as much as you are communicating in a correcting, punishing, or critical manner. You may need to stretch yourself with some children to find simple, normal, obvious behavior to make a positive comment about, or you may discuss an interest of the child's.

(2) Use Grandma's Rule (when you finish your peas, you can have your desert): When a child is expected to do an unpleasant, boring, or effortful task, give the command to do this task first and tell the child he/she can do a more pleasant, frequently chosen activity upon completion. Example: When you make your bed, you can watch TV. When you clean your plate, you can have desert.

(3) Be sure you mean it when you give a child a command. Don't give a command unless you intend to follow through and insure that your child follows it. This also means that you must give appropriate consequences when your child does not comply with your command. Sometimes we are all guilty of giving commands and then allowing the child to continue with what he/she was doing. We walk off and take care of a chore ourselves and leave the child doing what he/she was doing. When this happens, the child is rewarded for ignoring or resisting us. The reward he/she experiences in doing his/her own thing increases the likelihood that the child will ignore or resist in the future. In essence you are training the child to ignore or resist until such time as you give him/her the cue (yelling, threatening) that it is time to comply.

(4) Give your child a warning that a transition in acitivity is approaching. If the child is involved in an activity intently, give the child a five minute warning that he will have to obey a command to change activities. Then remind the child in 2 minutes. Then give the command.

(5) Give the command in a firm tone, not yelling or angry, not pleading or begging. In both yelling and pleading you communicate to the child that you feel out of control and the child is in control.

(6) Give only one command at a time. Be sure the command is simple and clear. Break down complicated commands or tasks into steps. Have the child report back to you after each step is finished. How simple the steps and how much tasks have to be broken down depend upon the child's age, intelligence, or disability such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. For example: Instead of telling the child to clean his room, tell him to pick up his clothes off the floor and put them in the closet or drawers or dirty clothes hamper. Then report back to you. Then tell him to pick up his toys off the floor and put them in the toybox. Then report back to you. Then straighten the top of his dresser. Then report back to you.

(7) Make sure your child is paying attention to you. Give the command in close proximity to the child. Ask him to come to you or go to the child. Ask the child to make eye contact. Look directly at the child and give the command.

(8) Reduce all distractions before giving the command. Turn off or down the TV, music, computer, VCR, and ask the child to stop playing whatever game or with whatever toy before you give the command. If the command or task can wait, be respectful of the child's involvement in an activity. You wouldn't want to have to get up and carry out someone's request in the middle of a TV program so that you would miss part of the program. Wait until a station break or a natural pause in the activity. And don't expect the child to remember the task you tell him/her during an activity. Give the command at the end of the activity.

(9) Ask the child to repeat the command. This helps to insure that the child heard and understood the command. It also helps the child with short term memory or attention problems to consolidate that memory and follow through.

(10) After giving the command, wait for the child to begin the task before going about your activities.

(11) Give the child positive feedback for complying with your command. Say, "Thank you." Or "I appreciate your cooperation." Or "You're really helping Mom out."

(12) Check on the child's progress frequently. If the child is off task, gently but firmly redirect him to return to task. If the child is following through with the command, give positive attention, praise, nonverbal appreciation such as a smile or a wink.

(13) Do not argue with your child over a command. If the child is genuinely puzzled by the command, give one explanation. Then tell the child that you will not discuss the command. You will ignore his complaints, questions, etc. and repeat the command.

(14) Some children who are very resistant need consequences to follow noncompliance. Tell the child you will count to three outloud. If you reach three, immediately give a consequence. Use logical consequences if possible. Try to relate the consequence to the current behavior. If the child is watching TV when you tell him to come to supper, and he refuses to comply, take away the TV privilege. Sometimes you may have to use punishment or time out when there is no apparent logical consequence. If the child agrees to the command after you reach three and give the consequence, it is too late, carry out the consequence. The child must also immediately comply with the command. If the child gets in a pattern of waiting to three, tell him you will begin counting to yourself.

(15)Set deadlines for when the task needs to be completed. Set a timer to ring when the task is to be finished.

(16)Practice giving your child simple commands and praising him for compliance and completion. You may even give small children a concrete reward for each episode of compliance and completion. Make a game of it. With older children you may want to be more discrete and just look for opportunities to give commands of a simple nature and give positive attention after compliance and completion. Rewards or obvious praise should be replaced with expressions of appreciation and recognition.

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