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Question or Command: Which gains your kid's attention?

Question or Command: Which gains your kid's attention?

Every parent feels like a broken record at some point. Having to ask your child or teen 15 times to get something accomplished is frustrating and builds resentment. Many parents find themselves managing a lot of “shoulds” i.e the kids “should” listen, they “shouldn’t” have to repeat themselves, the kids “shouldn’t” be ignoring what is being asked of them. The problem lies with asking. Arguably simple semantics, but I suggest we apply logic to this equation. When you ask a question the person to whom you are speaking inherently has the expectation of choice e.g. “Will you take out the trash?” This can often lead to a response or action that is not desired. When we want our kids to do something, we need to not ask, suggest or any other passive form of communication. The words we choose, the tone of voice we use, body language and our follow through impact the result. In combination with the wisdom of Russell Barkley, PhD, clinical experience and being foiled by my own children, here are some commandments for giving commands.

  • Don’t ask: When you want your child to comply, do not ask them do something. Command them to do it. Use simple, concise language, a firm or neutral tone of voice and make eye contact.
  • Body language, hold the space: Make eye contact, square your body with your child if possible and maintain your position and gaze until your child begins to follow the command. Then praise the compliance.
  • Follow through: If you are not going to follow through and demonstrate that the option of noncompliance is not available, do not give it. Your words need to mean something. All commands must come with the expectation that they will be followed and that you are prepared to back your words with the appropriate consequence i.e. praise/appreciation if the command is followed or negative consequences if it is not.
  • One at a time: Try to limit how many commands you give at a time to increase your child’s ability to remember and follow through.
  • Don’t interrupt: Kids are distractible. When you give them a task, do not interrupt the task with something else and then expect that all will be accomplished. You are gambling with their success. Help them out by waiting for completion or making a list.
  • Break it down: General commands that leave it up to the child to decipher what to do or read your mind will most likely result in frustration. Avoid vague commands i.e. clean your room. Break down larger tasks into smaller specific tasks. Use lists, pictures or other methods to support success. Assist younger kids with establishing a starting point, as large tasks can be overwhelming.
  • Time out: If your child has no concept of time, giving commands that rely on time or are time sensitive are a set up for failure. Use digital clocks, timers and other forms of external reminders to support compliance.
  • Pay attention to compliance: I know that your child is supposed to follow the command you have given. Be sure to praise and show appreciation for that compliance. If you are willing to notice and comment when your child the fails to comply, be willing to praise and show appreciation when they do.

These guidelines will support improvement in your child’s compliance, reduce frustration and tension between you and your child and leave you time and energy for other things.


Barkley, R. A. (1997). Defiant Children: A Clinician’s Manual (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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