Let's face it: If you had a dollar for every time you wanted your child to do something, paying the bills would be painless. You need him to listen up so you can make it through the day -- and keep your home from becoming a total disaster zone. Yet, like most parents, you probably don't want to be a nag (or a drill sergeant), so you constantly ask your child to cooperate. You figure he'll be more likely to pick up his towel off the bathroom floor or sit down at the dinner table if you come across as friendly rather than bossy. After all, you'll catch more flies with honey, right?
It seems like a reasonable approach, especially since that's the way that we typically talk to adults. "Being polite in our society requires making indirect requests, such as 'Can you pass the salt?'" explains developmental psychologist Linda Acredolo, PhD, a Parents advisor and coauthor of Baby Hearts. "If you interpret this question literally -- as young children always do -- it isn't actually a request for salt, it's a question of whether or not the person is capable of passing the salt." (Of course, you'd never expect your dinner companion to simply answer, "Yes.") So when you ask your child, "Would you like to take a bath now?" he thinks that you're actually offering him the opportunity to say no -- even though you really meant it as a polite way to make a direct command. The result? "You get upset and your child gets upset -- and confused," says Dr. Acredolo.
It certainly helps to sugarcoat some situations ("After we go to the supermarket, we can stop at the playground"). However, when you really need your child to do something, you could give her a choice about how or when it might get done -- but not if it should get done. Little kids (and bigger ones too) are constantly looking for ways to have more control, so it should be no surprise that if you give your child veto power, he's going to vote nay. You're setting yourself up for a potential power struggle.
Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be nice. "Research has shown that children are much more likely to cooperate when parents use a pleasant tone of voice," says Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. "Please" isn't called the magic word for nothing. Using it can get your foot-dragging toddler to put on her pj's without a fuss. "When you're giving your child instructions, it's also crucial to be very clear about what you want her to do -- she should be able to picture the behavior in her mind," says Dr. Kazdin. For instance, it's much more effective to say, "Please go into the den and clean up all the crayons on the table," rather than, "Didn't I ask you to clean up your crayons?" (Rhetorical questions will get you absolutely nowhere.)
The final word: thanks. "It's particularly important to acknowledge your child's efforts by saying 'thank you,'" says Dr. Acredolo. "We're all more likely to cooperate in the future when we feel appreciated."
The most effective way to get your child to cooperate is to give her two choices -- both of which you'll be happy with. When you say, "Do you want to wear your blue jacket or the green sweatshirt with the hood?" it'll be a win-win situation: You give your child a sense of control, and he'll be ready to go out one way or the other. Don't offer a toddler or preschooler an open-ended array of options ("What do you want to wear today?") because the decision will be too overwhelming. "Of course, you can't always give your child choices because you would never get out of the house on time," says Dr. Kazdin. "But do it whenever you can."
You'll get fast results when you stick to the facts, so we've got suggestions for easy ways to say what you mean.
Instead of: "Your room is a mess. Would you take five minutes to get all those clothes off the floor?"Say: "If your clothes aren't in the hamper, they won't get washed. Take five minutes to toss them in, please."
Instead of: "Are you going to feed the fish?"Say: "Those fish look hungry. It's time to feed them."
Instead of: "Can we turn off the TV and do something else for a change?"Say: "This show is over. It's time for playing with your blocks or going outside."
Instead of: "Would you put on your sneakers? We're late."Say: "Your sneakers need to be on. We're late."
Instead of: "Would you like to have string beans for dinner?"Say: "We're having string beans with our pasta for dinner."
Instead of: "I think it's time to try sitting on the potty now. Are you ready?"Say: "Let's go to the potty. Do you want to read a book about Elmo or Clifford?"
Instead of: "You look tired -- aren't you ready for your nap?"Say: "It's time for your nap now."
Instead of: "Are you ready for Mommy to leave now?"Say: "Mommy is leaving now, and you'll have lots of fun with Grandma."
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Parents magazine.