Obedience: Why Do You Have To Tell Them Five Times?

By Dr Laura Markham

“In one fairly typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a video game.”
– Elizabeth Kolbert

This situation may be extreme, but most parents I know have some version of this complaint. It’s a good question: Why don’t kids just do what we say the first time we say it?! And there’s a good answer. Several, in fact. Here are eight reasons from the child’s perspective  – plus solutions that work for parents!

  1. They don’t share our priorities.

No child understands why a bath seems so essential to you. And every child has something else he’s in the middle of doing, that seems more important to him. It may not look important to you, but a child’s play is his work  – that’s how young humans learn. That’s a good thing – you want a child who’s self-motivated, rather than expecting you to entertain him.

Solution:

First, connect with your child by noticing what he’s working on and acknowledging his priorities:

“Wow, look at this elaborate train track you’re building! Can you show me how it works?”

Then, give him a warning that you’re about to overrule his agenda with your own:

“Liam, it’s bath time. Do you want to take your bath now, or in five minutes? OK, five minutes with no fuss? OK, that’s a deal  – let’s shake on it!”

  1. We’ve trained them not to pay attention until we yell and threaten.

Your child is no dummy. She knows she can milk extra time before bath if she just ignores you. That doesn’t make her bad, just human. So if your child is like the eight-year-old who ignored five requests, it means you’ve trained her that you aren’t serious until you yell.

Solution:

Instead of giving directives from across the room, move in close to your child and touch her. Connect by commenting on what she’s doing. Then say:

“Excuse me, Isabel…I need to tell you something,”

and wait until she looks you in the eye. If she’s staring at a screen, warn her that you’re going to pause the game or the TV. Don’t give your directive until you make eye contact, so she knows you’re serious. If she’s glazed over from watching a screen, ask her to repeat back to you what you’ve said. Give only one warning, then stick to the time limit you’ve agreed on. Follow through. If you don’t, you’re training her not to take your requests seriously.

  1. They need our help to make the transition.

When you’re engrossed in your computer screen, don’t you find it hard to pull yourself away to tend to a whining child? Kids experience our repeated nagging the same way we experience their whining, meaning they try to tune it out.

Solution:

Give one warning. When you go back in five minutes, connect again by commenting on his play: “Wow, look at those trains go!” Remind him of your deal:

“OK, Noah, it’s been five minutes. Remember our deal? Five minutes and no fuss. It’s bath time now.”

Then, create a bridge from his play to what you’re asking:

“Do you want the two engines to leap off the track and race all the way to the bathroom? Here, I’ll take this one and you take that one; let’s zoom!”

  1. Their frontal cortex is still developing

Their frontal cortex is still developing the ability to switch gears from what they want to what you want. Every time you set a limit that requires your child to give up what she wants in order to do what you want, she has to make a choice. When she decides that her relationship with you is more important than what she wants at this moment, she follows your request. Every time she does that, she’s strengthening her brain’s ability to redirect herself toward a higher goal. That’s how kids develop self-discipline. But this only works if your child switches gears somewhat willingly. If you drag her kicking and screaming, she’s resisting, rather than choosing. She’s not building those self-discipline neural pathways. (That’s why there’s a “self” in “self-discipline”. It’s chosen from inside.)

Solution:

Set limits with empathy so she WANTS to cooperate, and gets plenty of practice exercising her brain to choose the higher goal.

See next page for four more reasons plus solutions…

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