Being good, enlightened parents, we celebrate and cherish our youngsters’ budding independence. (A friend once told me that the first time he thought of his son as “a real person” was when his son said “no” to him.) At the same time, however, we often feel a flush of indignation in the moments when we ask our children to do something and they willfully decline; and there’s a quiet magic in the moments when we ask our children to do something and they cheerfully acquiesce.
Many parents struggle with the tension between wanting to support their children’s sense of self-determination and wanting their kids to just do what they’re told, without needing to be cajoled or coerced into doing so. One solution to this problem is to embrace the following paradox: To get kids to do something when you say so, get them to do it not because you said so but because they decide that it’s a good idea.
Of course, there is a sense in which this is always what children do: “If I don’t do what mommy says, she will get mad, so it’s a good idea to do what she says.” But I mean something deeper—I mean getting kids to understand why you’re asking them to do whatever it is that you’re asking them to do. And although working with children this way takes more time in the short run, pretty soon kids will be doing what you say not because they have to but because they trust you.
Explaining to children why you are asking them to do (or not do) certain things has at least four concrete benefits:
- Persuasion: A good explanation will help children see why it makes sense to comply with your request (e.g., “Please help me bring in groceries so that we can have our snack sooner”).
- Learning: Generalizing that explanation (e.g., “When everyone helps, the job gets done more quickly, so we can do the next thing sooner”) will help children build frameworks of understanding that they can apply to other situations.
- Trust: Over time, children will learn that when you ask them to do something there is almost always a good reason to do it, which will make them more likely to comply with a novel request that they don’t (yet) understand or agree with.
- Modeling: More basically, explaining to children why you want them to do something can help them learn that it’s good to justify actions with reasons.
Here are some tips to help you get into the habit of telling children why you are asking them to do things:
- Give children as much explanation as they want, at a level they can understand. Even a two-year-old can understand, for example, that drivers have a harder time seeing little people than big people, so little people should always stay very close to big people in parking lots.
- Repeat as often as necessary. Preschoolers’ brains are still working out how to remember things, so it’s very likely you will find yourself repeating the same explanation for a request time and again. Have faith: Over time, that repetition will help your children form enduring memories of why, for instance, we brush our teeth every night (“to clean off food so that germs don’t make painful holes in our teeth”).
- Ask before telling, to encourage children to produce those kinds of explanations themselves. Thinking about how we might answer a question leads to deeper learning than simply waiting to hear the answer. If you ask your child to help clear dishes after a meal and she resists, ask her to think about why you want her help; the ensuing discussion might help her to realize (or remember, if this is a repeated conversation) that helping you with the dishes is the quickest way for her to get a story or some play time with you.
- Recognize that “Because I say so” is a missed opportunity. There are moments when you’re just too weary or frustrated to give your children the explanation they ask for, but even in those moments, you can let them know why you can’t explain your request (e.g., “Right now I don’t have the patience to tell you why; for now, please just do it. If you’re still curious later, we can talk about it then”).
- Make clear that there are times when children need to obey before understanding, but that even in those times you’ll explain eventually. My son knows—because I have explained it to him—that if I ever say, “Stop!” he must immediately freeze. He also knows that after he freezes I will explain why I have asked him to do so. His part of this agreement is to obey; my part is to honor his trust by (a) only using this word to protect him, another person, or an object (unless we’re just practicing, which we do for fun sometimes to help strengthen the habit) and (b) always making clear after the fact what the danger was.
Telling children why we want them to do things is hard; life would certainly seem easier if we could just announce our commands and rest assured of instant compliance from our children. But even in that fantasy scenario, our perfectly compliant children would not be developing any understanding of why they should do certain things in certain contexts, so we would have to keep telling them what to do again and again and again. (It’s the whole give-a-fish-or-teach-to-fish situation.) Explaining our requests is one great way to equip our children with the tools they need to make good choices on their own—which is, after all, the ultimate goal of parenting!