“Put your shoes away please, honey,” I said to my three year old.
It wasn’t a lot to ask – he was literally standing next to the box where the shoes belonged.
I looked down at him; that furrowed brow and those little folded arms and knew I needed to be creative.
Because I love that kid and I don’t want to yell at him – and sometimes I have to count to ten and remind myself of that.
Getting little kids to obey takes patience
Are you tired of your toddler saying “no” to you?
It’s a tough phase and you might start to ask yourself, like me, if you’re doing something wrong.
“Why is this child not doing as they are told?” you’ll wonder.
As a mum and a teacher, I know that it will come. Given time, my child – and yours – will learn to obey.
In the meantime, I have a handful of strategies to share with you so you can get that obedience you crave from the grumpy, determined little people that you love. (If you’d also love your child to share more, check out this post here.)
It’s often frustrating, trying to get your child to obey you.
There’s nothing worse than standing toe to toe with your beloved son or daughter, insisting that they do something while they insist that they won’t. You don’t want to lose face (or authority) and they don’t either.
With a few strategies, you can avoid the need for these confrontations.
I’m a mum and I’ve also been a primary school teacher for over 10 years. In that time, I’ve often had to persuade both my own and other people’s children to obey even though they didn’t want to.
Of course, no one thing will work for every child – and it is important for children to learn to do as they’re told. But why not avoid some conflict if you can do it without giving in to your child? So everyone is happy?
These six tips are my favourite strategies for getting what I want without anyone feeling that they’ve lost or having to get upset.
Most of us yell sometimes – but if you make a conscious effort to make these strategies part of how you parent, I think you’ll find after a few weeks that you’re yelling significantly less.
Why bother? Why not just yell?
In the middle of your busy day, a child refusing to do something as simple as put on their shoes or drink up their milk is incredibly annoying and the temptation to yell is huge.
We’ve all been there – and we’ve all given in and yelled.
Yelling may seem like the natural consequence of disobedience. I’ve told myself that when I’ve given in and hollered at my child for refusing to do as they’re told.
When you get into a situation where you’ve asked your child to do something and they have refused, it’s hard to get out of. As the parent, you can’t back down because you want to maintain authority in the house but little people can be very, very stubborn.
Yelling is about your frustration – and power
I realised that when I yell, it’s usually because I am not getting what I want another way and I want my power back. Rational means aren’t working so I yell. But that’s a bad example to my kids.
You don’t want to give them the message that they do not have to obey – but you also don’t want to be super-strict, do-it-right-now scary mama.
As well as being frightening for your child, yelling at them until they obey means they are doing it because you forced them to. Perhaps it is good for your child to know that you can make them obey but that’s just not necessary most of the time.
So what can you do instead?
Get your child to back down without even realising
By using my strategies below, you will learn how you can get your child to do what you want them to without either them or you having to lose face. A lot of the time, you will get them to do it willingly without any tears or upset at all. (Number 4 works a treat with my 3 year old right now!)
These tricks take the pressure out of the situation because nobody is having to win or lose. Technically, your child will be backing down but only you will know that. It’s getting what you want in a way that’s comfortable for everybody.
You may need more than one strategy to get the outcome you want – just judge when it’s not working and change tack.
Generally speaking, I use 1 and 2 first and then whichever fits the situation and my mood best. I do love to use the more playful ones, though. It’s great to turn an awkward situation into a fun one!
Strategy 1 – get close to your child
When you need to ask your child to do something, don’t be on the other side of the room – get close and get on their level.
Crouch down beside your little one and look them in the face when you tell them what you need them to do. It’s much easier to get their attention – and much harder for them to ignore you.
If you shout across the room, it may seem like they are ignoring you if they don’t answer, but they may actually simply be distracted by something that is nearer to them. You also make the request more personal by getting close to them.
If you already asked them to fetch their shoes and they haven’t, go across and ask them close up. If they don’t act right away, you can use strategy #2.
Strategy 2 – wait and see
Sometimes, kids just don’t want to be seen to do as they are told! Maybe you’ve been there too – knowing you need to do what someone is telling you but not wanting to give them the satisfaction of seeing you do it!
Toddlers are probably too young to realise why they are being stubborn but it’s definitely true that a child left alone for a while will quite often go ahead and do the thing they were asked to.
By giving them some time and not nagging them, you remove the conflict from the situation – allowing them to do what you want without feeling that they are losing.
Here’s an example of how ignoring a fuss can totally diffuse the situation – if you can discipline yourself not to react.
Diffusing by waiting and not reacting
Me Drink up your milk, please.
Son #2 (drinking his milk) Milk is delicious!
Literally 2 seconds later
(Putting milk down and crying) No! I don’t want milk! I want juice! Put this milk down the sink!
Me You can have juice with lunch – you need to drink your milk now.
Son #2 (still crying) No! I don’t want milk!
He carried on like that for a minute or so, getting quite upset. He was so desperate not to drink the milk he had just said was delicious. We kept on eating our own breakfasts and after a few minutes, he had calmed down.
And then he drank the milk with no further drama.
It might feel wrong to ignore seemingly bad behaviour, but by giving your child time and not reacting, you are preventing the situation from escalating.
Strategy 3 – …and then…
This strategy is a good one if you like your child to actually obey you.
If you are determined that your child will put away their shoes and they are insisting that they won’t, that seemingly small and unimportant task takes on huge importance.
It quickly becomes very important to you to see them do it – and equally important to them to resist.
It may seem counterintuitive, but you need to get the focus off the task that you want the child to do. You can do this by pointing out what you will do after that unpopular task is done – so that the next task becomes the focus. Then the thing you are asking them to do becomes a formality to get out of the way quickly in order to get to the main event.
In our example of putting away shoes, you could say,
Put your shoes away and then we can have a snack / we can have lunch / we can build a tower of bricks.
This can work with anything that you know they’re going to want to do. Make sure that the ‘and then’ activity is definitely going to be popular with your child or it won’t work – it needs to be an incentive big enough to override their refusal.
Strategy 4 – make it a race
Sometimes, I think it’s good to be silly when you’re dealing with behaviour. Inserting some fun can totally change the dynamic of the exchange from being at loggerheads to laughing together and on the same side again.
For that reason, we have a lot of ‘races’ with our three year old at the moment. They are races that we know we will not win – but we are still the real winners because this strategy is great for getting #2 to do what we want.
Any time he doesn’t want to go up to bed, we have the bedtime race. In fact, it’s become almost a nightly tradition which makes it even more effective.
Instead of telling him he needs to come up to bed, we challenge him to be first into his bedroom. And like the little sucker he is, he’s off and running without even giving me a kiss most nights.
Race to do a pee
Another silly one. Before going out, #2 needs to go to the potty but usually he doesn’t want to. By racing another family member to be first finished peeing, he does it happily. (I know – this one’s not for everyone!)
Honestly, you must try this. It’s silly and fun and so much better for everyone than issuing instructions and consequences.
Here are a few other ‘races’ that you could try.
- A race to put shoes on / away.
- A race to tidy up toys (against you or a sibling).
- The dessert / dinner / breakfast race.
- The race to finish homework.
Strategy 5 – Start without them and see if they join in
At school and at home, I’ve had great success getting children to do what I want with this tactic. You could find great success this way if the toughest part with your child is getting them started on an activity.
It’s one of my favourite ways to engage children in an activity they are not keen to try and it works for homework too!
Let’s imagine that you want your child to build blocks with you. You ask them to come and play but they won’t. It seems silly to yell at a child to play with you so what do you do?
Simple. Start playing / doing.
Build a structure and talk to your child about what you’re doing. Ask for their opinion and possibly for suggestions on how to make it better.
If they are resisting, try doing a really bad job and having it fall down repeatedly. Talk about how you’re doing it wrong and you wish you had help to see if they will bite and come to assist you.
It can take a few minutes to work and I recommend not making a fuss when they come over. If you start saying things like,
“See? I told you you would like to build with me!” you will just reopen the original opposition that you’ve worked to get past. Instead, thank them for playing with you and say you’re looking forward to building together again.
Strategy 6 – You can’t do that!
Kids love to prove us wrong! Use the smartypants in your child to your advantage and trick them into doing what you want. This works really well with 2-3 year olds and you can try it out as soon as you know your child will understand what you’re saying.
It’s essentially a challenge but you’re framing it as a win for the child (though you’re the real winner!)
No way can you eat all those potatoes!
You won’t be able to put your shoes on without my help.
I bet you can’t find your pyjamas before I get to your room!
You are too little to carry your own bag all the way home!
Which strategy to use with a defiant child?
Try them all out a couple of times. There will probably be one or two that fit your parenting style well or that work well on your child – hopefully both!
When your child refuses to do something, take a deep breath and calmly use your chosen strategy. Be patient and try hard not to lose it if things don’t go the way you’re hoping. Think what else you could try.
And if you give in and yell, go easy on yourself and think how you can approach defiance differently next time.
Back to my son and his shoes
He stared at me and I stared back at him for a few seconds.
Then I knew what would work this time. I bent down, still eyeballing him.
“I bet I can get my shoes in the box first,” I said.
And you can guess what happened – those shoes were in the box in a second and we were off to the kitchen for a snack. Obedience achieved and strop averted.