Raising Responsible Kids: Communication

Responsible-kidsThe way we speak to our kids and the way we present our expectations is key to eliminating the whining (them), nagging (us) and the general frustration with parenting.  In New Parent Power, John Rosemond says, “When giving instructions to children, parents should be commanding, concise, and concrete.” He calls these the three Cs of good communication.  Let’s discuss.

1) Commanding: I try to ask a question only if it’s an option, and to make a command if the issue is not up for debate.  But a wise parent will choose her battles wisely.  I try not to get stuck enforcing something I really don’t want to enforce because a) I hate to battle with my kids when it’s not necessary and b) I’m more likely to not follow through if it’s not that important to me.

For example, if I don’t want to force my 4-year-old to go upstairs and retrieve her shoes, then I will ask her if she wants to run up and get them rather than command her to do so.  If I am willing to make it a command, I find that preceding a command with “I need” often helps an independent-minded child be willing to comply.  I have no idea why this is; an experienced school teacher taught me this when I was a first year teacher.  For some reason, a calm and confident, “I need you to get your clothes and shoes on now,” is usually more effective than, “Go get dressed right now.”

(Not that it’s inappropriate to say “Go get dressed.”  I can’t get too caught up in how I phrase things; it takes too much energy.  But with a child who is often difficult, phrasing can make a big difference.  It helps them save face or not feel put on the spot or something.)

Of course, there is still the chance that they will refuse, and then consequences must ensue.  The nice thing about saying “I need” rather than commanding her to do so is that there is still some leeway with your response.  If you command it, and she refuses, then you have to discipline for defiance.  But if you said that you need her to do it, and she says she doesn’t want to, then you can say something like, “No problem.  I’ll get your shoes this time, but there will be no TV after school today.”  That still gives her the opportunity to change her mind without a battle.  Either way, the parent maintains authority.

2) Concise: Oh, this is a hard one for me.  Surprised?  Ha.  Now that I’m aware of this, I notice how often I am prone to lecturing.  If the kid zones out before you’re finished waxing eloquent, you’ve already lost him.  I am trying so hard to rely on consequences to get results rather than reminders and nagging and lectures.  And I’m also trying to make my instructions shorter.  One of my children tends to get distracted easily, and if I give a string of instructions, she will never remember them all.  I’ve been trying to give only 2 or 3 instructions at a time, and keep it short and sweet.

Example: “I need you to put on your shoes, brush your teeth, and comb your hair.”  And then it really helps to have the child repeat them back.

Sometimes, depending on the age and maturity of the child, even one command is all they can handle.  So as to not set them up for failure, it helps to say, “Go put on your shoes, and come back, and I’ll tell you what to do next.”  You really have to know your child, and make your expectations realistic.

3) Concrete: Telling Johnny to “be good in the restaurant” is too nebulous.  Rather, tell him he needs to talk softly, stay in his seat, and eat politely.  Any more than three commands is probably too many.  Then be willing to remove him from the table and take him to the car for 5 minutes if he does not comply.

This is also true for commands such as “clean your room.”  While my 10-year-old can do that, my girls need more specific instructions, and again, 2 or 3 commands at a time is plenty.  “Pick up your Barbies and put your books on your shelf.  Let me know when you’re finished, and I’ll tell you what to do next.”

Don’t set yourself up to lose.

In Parenting With Love And Logic, the authors have some good advice, especially if you’re dealing with a child who doesn’t often want to do as you say.  They say, “Don’t set yourself up to lose.”

You may find some of this is a bit contradictory to Rosemond’s advice to be commanding.  But I think it depends on the child and the situation.


“I’d appreciate your taking out the trash before dinner.  Thanks.”  The message is simple: they don’t eat dinner until the trash is out.  It also doesn’t require them to jump up in the middle of whatever they’re doing to do your bidding.  They are more likely to cooperate when they can do it at their convenience.

“You may take that tone of voice to your room.”  I love this one.  I use it ALL the time now.  When my kids complain or whine or nag me about something, I say that in a friendly, matter-of-fact tone.  They know they can return to the family when they can speak nicely.

Offering choices is a great way to set yourself up to maintain control of the situation without creating a power struggle.

“Would you rather play nicely here in the kitchen or be noisy in your room?”

“Would you rather pick up your toys or hire me to do it?”  This one works like a charm in my house.

Tying the command to something they want to do is also an awesome way to get things done without a fight.

“You’re welcome to come to dinner after your toys are picked up.”

“Feel free to join us at the breakfast table once you’re dressed for school.”

“I’ll be glad to read you a story once your pajamas are on.”

If they don’t comply, or try to argue, you just stay calm and restate your expectations. With a child who is particularly stubborn, you may need to state them several times, but maintaining your calm and friendly demeanor is key.  The other phrase he uses a lot is “I know.”


Mom: “Rudy, you’re welcome to go out and play with your friends as soon as your room is picked up.”

Rudy: “But Mom, the kids are out there right now!  I’ll do it later.”

Mom: “You may go out and play as soon as your room is picked up.”

Rudy: “But the kids may go in by then!”

Mom (with empathy, not sarcasm): “I know.  And you may go out as soon as your room is picked up.”

Rudy: “You’re mean!  I hate this house!”

Mom (still unruffled): “I know.  And…”

Rudy, resigned: “I know.  I can go out when my room is picked up.”

You only will have to go through that once or twice before they learn that you mean business.

The key here is to keep calm, cool, and collected at all times. The more emotional they get, the more unemotional you should be.  And avoid sarcasm at all costs.  We are not taking sadistic pleasure in driving them to the brink of sanity.  We are simply stating our expectations and implementing the consequences.  In Parenting With Love And Logic, they say to replace anger with empathy.  By putting the responsibility of their behavior on their shoulders (see Raising Responsible Kids: Remove the Bumpers) and making their problems theirs instead of ours, we remove our emotional involvement in the issue.  We can be sympathetic to their plight without giving in and letting up on the consequences.

See all posts in this Raising Responsible Kids series.

Disclaimer: I am by NO MEANS a parenting expert of any sort.  I am just sharing some things I’m learning as I navigate the muddy waters of motherhood.  I figure, if they work for me, they may work for someone else.  Good luck!

Disclosure: All links to books are Amazon affiliate links.

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21 Responses

  1. I’ve also found with younger kids that it’s very effective to say “You CAN go put your shoes on now.” It’s feels awkward but it usually works great. It combines a command with a positive “CAN DO” spirit.

  2. I’m reading “Parenting By The Book” by John Rosemond and it is WONDERFUL – I’m learning so much! I’ll read that book next!!!

    1. Good to know! I’m reading Teen Proofing right now. It’s more of the same, but particularly helpful as my oldest is nearing the teen years. YIKES!

  3. Thank you! I really appreciate your wisdom. I am printing this and going to have a conversation with my husband about using some of these with our four kids. 🙂

    1. Awesome! But to clarify, it’s not MY wisdom, lol. I’m just reading some really good books right now. 😉

  4. This is a great post! My son is 3 1/2 and quite stubborn. {I wonder where he gets it from?!} I’ll definitely be putting a lot of this into practice around here. Thanks!

  5. (Thankfully) I think we already do a lot of these, just not all the time (yikes, there goes consistency). I kind of just learned on my own that if I ask for help then I’m a lot more likely to get what I need. And I just started using the either/or thing. We’ve been having a really hard time with Baby Girl not paying attention at school and talking (pre-k). She had been on yellow a couple of times last week and I told her if it happened again she would be punished. That day she came home with a yellow. I gave her the option, she could clean her room and not have time to play or she could take a spanking and still have time to play. She took the spanking. I was shocked. I never would have picked that option as a kid. But she was so much better about it because she had some part in what would happen.

    (And just has a fyi, spankings are not handed down at our house very often and I really didn’t think she would pick that option. I really wanted her to clean her room.)

    1. We are the same, spankings happen, but they are rare. But your example proves what I’ve said all along, that spankings are actually more gracious than some other common forms of discipline, even though our culture tends to view them as excessively harsh.

  6. I heard Elisabeth Eliot talk once about communicating with children (especially younger ones). She emphasized that you must make EYE CONTACT with the child, and before you give instructions, SAY THE CHILD’S NAME. I found this to work really well with my kids. I was surprised to discover how often I was fully engaged in the conversation, but my child clearly was not, yet.

    Also, we very often told our children that they needed to fix their attitudes. This surprised my mom; she’d raised 5 kids and never dreamed that she could EVER tell someone to alter his attitude. We would tell our kids that their behavior/attitude was anti-social, and not welcome in the family unit. They would go to their rooms until they could be civil. The reminds them that 1) the parents and their marriage is the center of the home (not the child), and 2) the parents set the standard for behavior, not the child.

    1. Mary Kathryn, You have wonderful insights and input on these posts. (See how I used your name? Ha!) No, I really appreciate it. That’s exactly what the book said, about the marriage coming first.

      I’m reading Rosemond’s Teen Proofing now, and he advises not addressing the attitude. He says it’s counter productive, and the obedience is more important. I’m not sure what I think about that yet. Thoughts?

  7. I need to write some of these on “post-its” and attach them to my fridge …. on 2nd thoughts, I don’t want the kids to see them all in advance, maybe I need to add them to one of my “notes” apps on my iphone instead!

    Great series – keep up the good work!

    PS have your kids asked you to stop reading these books yet?!!

    1. Heh. Well, not my son. He likes it, I think. I honestly have not lost my temper since I’ve been implementing these techniques. My daughter is not as good with change – she had a harder time with our food changes too. But I don’t know that she’s put it together that I’m getting what I’m doing from the books I’m reading.

      Oh, the TV thing. THAT’S what she’s upset about the most. I cut out TV cold turkey. Oh, the moaning and groaning… I just smile and say, “I know. But you’ll get over it.” I have to remember not to explain my reasons (kids don’t get that) and just go on about business.

  8. This series is awesome Jo-Lynne! I definitely need to repeat the mantra, “calm, cool, and collected” SO many days (especially in the mornings which are just plain NUTS.

    Also? I need to work on being concise. I am sure you cannot imagine that. 🙂

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