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3 Tips to Get Kids to Follow Directions

Kids can be a wild card when expecting them to follow directions.

Key points

  • Kids are more likely to comply with commands that have favorable outcomes for them.
  • When parents show that there are black-and-white realities between complying and not complying, kids learn compliance is in their best interest.
  • A reward choice program can help motivate some children to comply the first time asked.

Kids have their own preferences and are developing a sense of autonomy and control. They also figure out which responses lead to the most favorable outcomes. As a parent, there are ways to honor their growing sense of autonomy and control while still promoting compliance. Here are three tips on how to do this.

1. Give Effective Commands

Tell children what to do, not what not to do.

When walking on a sidewalk with a child towards a water puddle, tell the child, “please walk around the puddle” rather than “don’t walk in the puddle.” This gives them a clear directive on what action to take – walk around the puddle. When we tell a child what not to do (don’t walk in the puddle), they may take other actions that aren’t ideal (run quickly through a puddle or try to leap over it).

When kids invade their parent’s space or want attention when they are cooking or working, telling a child “not now,” “stay back,” or “stay away” will likely only work for a short time, if at all. The command of “not now” doesn’t clarify when. The commands of “stay back” and “stay away” don’t clarify how far back or what away means. Instead, tell child, “I will not do this now because I’m working – if you’re quiet for 10 minutes and stay out of this room, so I can finish what I’m doing, then I will talk/play with you”.

Make sure there is a clear distinguishing point of what separates being in the kitchen vs. out of the kitchen. For example, all body parts (including toes) must be behind a specific floor tile for the child to be considered out of the kitchen.

2. Give Fewer Commands

Focus on commands that matter.

Parents often overwhelm children with commands. If a child hears too many commands, they may tune out. When parents repeat the same command, kids learn, “Why should I do anything daddy asks the first time when he will eventually ask a second, third, or fourth time? In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing" (playing my game, avoiding teeth brushing or bedtime).

When parents focus on commands that matter (getting ready for school, brushing teeth, completing homework/chores, and getting ready for bed) and eliminate unnecessary commands (“please hand daddy his water,” “please put this away”), kids are more likely to comply with received commands.

Many parents who feel they don’t give their kids many commands are unaware of a hidden culprit here: Asking kids too many questions – “How was your day?” “How was school?” “What did you learn?” “Who did you sit by?” “What are you doing?” “Can you come here?”

Questions are commands. “How was your day?” phrased differently is actually, “Tell me right now: How was your day?” When kids don’t respond to this question, it's a form of passive non-compliance. While not the biggest transgression for many parents, it still reinforces that a non-response to parent commands is acceptable and has no consequences.

3. Follow Through With Commands

Show kids that there are black-and-white realities for following directions vs. not following directions.

When kids don’t follow directions, there’s usually a reason – to get something they want (more time playing video games) or to get out of doing something they don’t want (going to bed).

Parents often tell kids to turn off the video game, brush their teeth, bathe, and get ready quickly in the morning for school. When kids don’t do these tasks the first time asked, they usually don’t view noncompliance as their problem. Rather, they are mommy or daddy’s problems. Child behavior usually doesn’t change until they view non-compliance as a problem. By problem, we’re not talking about punishments such as spanking, yelling, or threats – rather, making non-compliance the child’s problem means they lose out on some type of privilege or reward (fun activity, screen time, tokens for rewards).

When your child often struggles to comply with a command, a reward choice program can help motivate them to comply the first time they're asked. Here are the instructions:

  • Give commands (turn off the game, hand over the phone/tablet, go brush your teeth, go get in the bath, get in bed, put your clothes on, etc.) and immediately inform the child that if they follow directions quickly, they will get to pick one of the options on the reward choice board. For example: “Sam, it's 7:30, so it is time to brush your teeth. If you are brushing your teeth in the next minute, you will get to pick one activity from the reward choice board for us to do as soon as you’re done." “Sophie, it has been 30 minutes, so your screen time is over. If you hand over the tablet quickly, you will pick a fun activity for us to play off the reward choice board.”
  • If the child complies with the command in a reasonable time, then offer enthusiastic praise: “Sam! I love how you went to brush your teeth the first time Daddy asked. You have your listening ears on! When you’re done, we’ll play the activity you chose.”
  • If the child does not comply in a reasonable time, then in a very matter-of-fact tone, let them know they did not earn the reward choice activity: “Sophie, because you did not hand mommy the tablet the first time I asked, you will not get a reward choice activity. That was your choice. Maybe next time you will make a different choice.” (Note: The parent in this situation should still remove the tablet from the child or turn off the power switch so that the child understands that resistance will not allow them more screen time).
  • The rationale for this reward choice program is that it provides an immediate reward in response to compliance. For some kids who may be a bit more oppositional to parental directives, this strategy shifts the choice point away from “Am I going to do what daddy says, yes or no?” to “Which fun activity am I going to choose, limbo contest, dance party, or floor is lava?”
  • Other ideas for reward choice options include who can balance a cup on their head the longest, taking funny selfies with mommy or daddy's phone, pin the tail on the donkey, staring game, blinking game, rock-paper-scissors contest, etc.
  • For younger kids, visual is always best, so making a reward choice board often consists of looking up fun images on the internet that represent a game. The activities/games you allow your child to choose from on the reward choice board should continually be switched out to increase their novelty and so they don’t become stale.


Castelo, R. J., Meuwissen, A. S., Distefano, R., McClelland, M. M., Galinsky, E., Zelazo, P. D., & Carlson, S. M. (2022). Parent Provision of Choice Is a Key Component of Autonomy Support in Predicting Child Executive Function Skills. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 773492.

White, L., Delaney, R., Pacifici, C., Nelson, C., Dickinson, S. L., & Golzarri-Arroyo, L. (2019). Understanding and Parenting Children's Noncompliant Behavior: The Efficacy of an Online Training Workshop for Resource Parents. Children and youth services review, 99, 246–256.

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