The following statements are true:
- A child’s natural response to the proper presentation of authority is obedience.
- Most of today’s parents — I’d estimate over 90 percent — do not act like authority figures.
A woman tells me her 5-year-old does not do what she tells him to do. I disagree, pointing out that children almost always do what they are told.
“I’ve never heard of a 5-year-old who would not do what he is told,” I say. “Now, I’m not suggesting that you’re going to get 100 percent obedience, even under the best of circumstances. In my experience, however, 85 percent is worst possible scenario.”
“Well,” she replies, “my son won’t do anything I tell him to do, ever.”
“Please don’t be offended, but I’ll venture that the problem is not your son. Rather, it’s you.”
“It’s very simple, really,” I say. “Children do what they are told. Your son is not doing what you think you are telling him to do. The only logical conclusion to draw, therefore, is that you are not telling him to do anything. Instead, you are doing what most parents do these days: pleading, bargaining, bribing, cajoling, reasoning and explaining. That sort of approach invites complaining, arguing and disobedience.”
“You’re absolutely right,” she says. “I’m doing all of that.”
This frustrated mom had been trying to correct the wrong person, which is why none of her corrections had worked. In less than five minutes, I taught her the simple art of telling.
First, and contrary to the advice given by most parenting pundits, deliver instructions from a fully upright position. Do not bend over, grab your knees and “get down to the child’s level.” That is a pleading posture, which takes on a pleading character.
Second, use the fewest words possible. The more concise the instruction, the more authoritative it sounds. Therefore, if you want a child to pick up his toys simply say, “I want you to pick up your toys now and put them where they belong.”
Third, do not explain yourself. Explanations invite resistance and stimulate argument.
Fourth, if a child asks for an explanation say, “Because I said so,” which is simply an affirmation of the legitimacy of your authority.
Fifth, do not end an instruction with the word, “Okay?” Remember, you are giving direction, not asking your child to consider a suggestion.
Sixth, when you have delivered the instruction, turn around and walk away. Do not stand there. Supervising invites push back.
I spoke on this very subject in June 2013 on the first day of a three-day family conference in South Carolina. On day two, numerous parents reported to me that this very simple approach was already working.