Positive Parenting: Step by Step

When parents get frustrated about kids not listening or minding them, we often times want to restate the request or think we must get louder to get their attention…but, that often contributes to feelings of upset and resentment for both parent and child. In these moments, I think it is most helpful to remember two specific positive parenting principles.

Number 1:

Stop and ask yourself, is this command really necessary?

When I first learned this principle I had a visual of Peppermint Patty and her reaction to the teacher whose voice sounded like it was just a bunch of “blah blah blah.”

We don’t want to become that inaudible voice to our children when we really want them to take action. The best way to avoid this parenting trap is to not put yourself in that position in the first place.

Ask yourself, “Is this command or request really necessary?”

If it is, then make sure to read number 2 below. If it is not necessary…then don’t say a word.

When is it better to stay silent? Here are some examples:

  • If your child is doing a behavior that is not harming herself or others and is simply playful
  • If your child is able to do the behavior without parental involvement

The other time is when you find yourself giving too many commands all at once. It can be overwhelming to get more than a few commands/requests at a time. This is especially hard for younger children or children with attentional difficulties. The rule of thumb is to give your child one command and give them a few seconds to acknowledge the request/command either with a nod of the head, eye contact and verbal response (“Ok”) or better yet, actually doing what you asked of them.

However, for some children if you give them too many commands strung together, they may remember the first or last command but nothing in between. We don’t want to set our children up for failure in this scenario or you may extinguish the desire they had in the first place to try something new or complicated.

And, make sure that you have your child’s attention. If you just speak and their attention is elsewhere, it may take a moment for them to process that you are actually asking them to do something. If you take the time to make eye contact or use a light touch on their shoulder to direct their attention to you, you set the stage for clear communication.


Number 2:

Give your child an ACTION word to describe what it is you desire them to do.

Kids need to know EXACTLY what you want them to do, this is especially true for children who are between 2 and 7 years old because they often are beginning to think in symbols and linking words to visual images. If you tell them what NOT to do, they cannot help but imagine the behavior you don’t want them to do.

I mean, confusing, right?

As children mature and their ability to think and reason develop, it can affect how they take in information given to them. Children who are 7 to 11 years of age are still thinking about things in the “here and now” and the physical form of objects. However,  this is the age where they are learning to be more aware of others’ feelings.

So what does this mean?

In many of the positive parenting programs out there, parents are reminded about the importance of giving EFFECTIVE or CLEAR commands so that children will understand what it is you want them to do. Always tailor the request to match the developmental level of your child.

At 1-2 years of age, children can be expected to follow a ONE step command

Say goodbye to daddy.

Give the toy to mommy.

At 2-3 years of age, children can handle a TWO step command.

Put the cup in the sink and get your coat. 

Put your toy away and get your shoes.

After 3 years of age, children can often understand 3 part instructions.

Go get your shoes, socks and hat.


In each of the above examples, you will notice each command is phrased with ACTION words. None of them have a negative or “no” or “don’t” attached. That is because those types of commands, while meant to keep children safe or said while we are frustrated, lack the ability to clearly communicate what we want children TO do. Sometimes as exasperation sets in we say things like, “Don’t yell in the car!” or “Stop running in the house!” But these types of commands or requests are not as effective because younger children often times don’t know what we want them to do instead.

Instead of “Don’t yell in the car” try, “Use your inside voice in the car.”

Instead of “Stop running in the house” try, “Show me your walking feet.”

Instead of “Stop climbing on the chair” try, “Sit on your pockets.”

In the moment, it is hard to phrase commands so it is clear–especially if emotions are running high or you are just trying to get your child to stop doing something. Yet, if we want our children to know what it is we want from them, we need to start telling them exactly what we expect or what we want.

Try avoiding the following types of commands:

  • Question commands: if you want your child to definitely do something, don’t phrase it as a question. Giving commands disguised as questions just opens up the possibility for a child to politely (or not so politely) decline your request. For example, pretend you want your child to transition from watching television to start getting ready for bed.

Rather than saying, “It’s time for bed. Do you want to turn off the TV now?” say…”It’s time for bed, please turn off the TV.”

  • Chain commands: Rather than give your child a list of things to do, give one or two at a time.

Rather than saying, “I want you to turn off the TV, go upstairs, get your pajamas on, brush your teeth and feed the fish before getting into bed,” think about breaking these into smaller chunks so that children can stay on task and not forget each request. This one is especially important if a child has attentional difficulties or if they are mentally engaged in an activity that they enjoy.

  • Let’s commands: This one can be a trap for parents of younger children who assume when you say “let’s” that you plan to be involved. If you don’t plan to assist or be the wing man, then stay away using the “let’s” command because quite literally, young children will take this at face value and assume you will be doing the request with them.

Rather than saying, “let’s start picking up the toys now!” and then watching your child wait for you to help, you might consider saying, “Please pick up your toys.”

When we respond to children, we also want to try to avoid vague responses like “just a minute.” We’ve all done this one. Who hasn’t? If your child asks you to do something while you are otherwise busy, we respond, “Just a minute!” But really we don’t mean a minute. Rather we mean,

…when we finish the task at hand,

finish composing that email, or

finish making dinner.

Instead of “Just a minute” try, “I will be able to help you when I finish sending this email [or whatever task you are doing]” OR you can instead say, “five minutes or 10 minutes” if that is closer to how much time you actually need to wrap up whatever it is you are doing in the moment.

When all is said and done, when your child complies with your requests or commands, make sure to reinforce appropriate actions by giving your child the feedback that you appreciate their compliance or their helpfulness. This will let them know that what they just did was appreciated. We all like to feel appreciated–it can go a long way for the next time.

If you find yourself giving too many commands, commands that are not clear or that are vague, it’s ok. As I said, we all do it.

If you find yourself frustrated or if you feel your child never listens to you, these tips are meant to encourage you to stop and think about what you can do to help your child understand what it is you need or want them to do so you get follow through.

I tell all my families that children will give us lots of opportunities to try again! So, if you find yourself in a #mommyfail or #momlife or #parenting moment, just pat yourself on the back, replay it in your head and think about how you could have said things to make it more clear to your child. Then the next time you’ll be ready!

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Written by

Nerissa Bauer

I am a behavioral pediatrician, consultant, child advocate and blogger. I am a wife, mommy to 2 amazing children and 2 golden retrievers. Love cooking, travel, reading, tap and creating.