How do I get my kid to listen the 1st time I ask?

Today's question comes from a reader in La Verne, California.


Q: My 3 year old isn't following directives. I find myself having to tell him to do something multiple times. Finally, I got to give him a Time Out for not listening, and then he starts to cry and does what I ask. I feel bad still giving him a Time Out once he follows directions. I'm not sure what to do in this situation. Help!



A: First of all, thanks for reaching out! Your dilemma is a common problem for many parents! This type of behavior can be seen in toddlers, school-aged children, and teens. So, learning how to navigate this issue is beneficial for MANY parents!


To begin, remember that kids (no matter how old) are exceptional at navigating their environment (read: extremely good at manipulating caregivers!). As such, kids will quickly pick up on subtle cues from parents when deciding to listen to directives. These subtle cues include things like tone of voice, volume, and body language/facial expression. These clues let your child know just how serious you are about your directive.


Now, you might be thinking, "But I'm ALWAYS serious about my directives!" Although you want your kids to follow directions the first time you ask them to do it, your kids have learned what your limit is. This means that they've learned whether or not you give a directive only once before instituting consequences or 5 times before delving out those punishments. Essentially, this is the trap you're currently stuck in.


Give Only ONE Warning


You're giving a directive multiple times before finally instituting your consequence (i.e. the Time Out). As such, your kiddo has figured out that he can ignore you the first several times without getting into trouble (i.e. you're not really serious about your directive... yet!). This highlights what the solution to your problem is... give your directive only once.


Get into the habit of only giving your directive once before instituting warnings and consequences. Here's an example of what this should look like:


Parent: "Please put your shoes where they belong."


Child ignores.


Parent: "Put your shoes where they belong or you will get a Time Out for not listening to directions."


Child ignores again. The parent institutes the Time Out.


In this example, you'll notice that the parent gives the direction only once before instituting a warning. You'll also notice that the warning includes the consequence, which is something I recommend, but is not necessary. It's just a personal choice.


Now, technically, you are asking your child twice in this example (i.e. the initial ask and then a warning). If you're not a fan of asking twice, you can always shorten this to just your directive with the warning included. Here's an example of what that might look like:


"Please put your shoes where they belong or there will be a consequence for not listening."


This brings us to the second part of your problem- parental follow through. You mention that you give multiple warnings, followed by giving him a Time Out. Before you fully apply your consequence, he begins to cry and completes the task you asked of him. What's going on here is that your child has learned that if he follows through with the directive, he can avoid the consequence. This is definitely what we want him to do, but we want him to do it the FIRST time you ask him. This leads us to the second solution to your problem.


Follow Through with Your Warnings


Once you have given your warning, if your child fails to listen, follow through with the consequence. Once you begin the motion of giving the consequence, you need to follow through, even if your child races to comply. You want to get your child out of the habit of waiting until your applying a consequence to listen, and the only way to do this is by following through with your consequences.


This can be really difficult for parents because you feel like you are punishing the behavior you want to see. This is an excellent point, and the way around this is to communicate to your child why they are still receiving the consequence. Let's look at an example to help illustrate:


Parent: "Put your shoes where they belong or you will get a Time Out for not listening to directions."


Child ignores. The parent begins to institute the Time Out.


Child: "No mommy! I'll put my shoes away."


Child races to put his shoes away.


Parent: "Thank you for putting your shoes away, but you didn't follow directions the first time I asked. So, you will still get a Time Out for not listening the first time."


In this example, notice that the parent clearly explains why the child is still getting a consequence despite following directions. This helps the child to understand what he needs to do differently next time in order to avoid a consequence. It will also encourage your child to listen to your directives the first time you ask, which is ultimately what you are looking for.

I hope this was helpful to you as you navigate this little problem. Follow these tips and you'll see a nice improvement after a few weeks. It takes a little time for your child to figure out the rules have changed and that YOU have changed. So expect things to be a little challenging as you apply these tips. If you stick to it, however, you'll notice your child will begin to follow directions the first time you ask!


If you want more help with how to structure warnings, as well as more tips on how to get your child to listen the first time you ask, you can check out my other post: How to Get Kids to Listen without Yelling.


Good luck and Happy Parenting!