Use Direct Language: Tell Don't Ask your Children


A pencil flies across the room.

“Johnny,” I said, “Why would you do something like that?”

“Because,” Johnny plainly replied.

“Because why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Miss Suzie, would you like to join us?” I asked, tapping on the desk upon which the young girl laid her head for a mid-class nap.

“Excuse me, missy. Would you please get down from there?” I asked my daughter as she climbed on top of the table only to be given with her honest response: “No, Daddy, No.”

As a father I have found myself falling into the same bad habits I had as a first-year teacher. When I first started teaching I was annoyed and surprised by some of the middle school behavior. It all seemed so ridiculous. The things they did shouldn’t have even been funny. To be honest it didn’t even bother me that much so I didn’t come down that harshly.

I took a polite tone with the kids, rather than one of authority. We grow up being taught to ask nicely for things and this becomes a habit that invades our teaching and our parenting.

When we want to change a behavior in our children, the familiar maxim ask, don’t tell doesn’t quite work. We need to tell, not ask when we want kids to do something. Would you really want an honest answer to the question, “Would you please line up in a straight line, everyone?” (“No, Mr. Dees, we would rather do whatever we want and have fun!).

I soon figured this out as a teacher and started to use direct language sometimes even using specific consequences: “Line-up, it’s time to go back to class. Johnny, you have two seconds to get in line or you will lose 5 minutes of your recess.”

Now I need to learn this lesson as a father. I was able to master this as a teacher, but I’m amazed by how easy it was to fall into the same bad habits as a parent without even realizing it. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. This applies to people of all ages.

What is your advice? How do you address young people in direct ways rather than using indirect questions? What habits have you formed that help curb bad behavior?

Copyright 2011 Jared Dees


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  1. I’m a HUGE fan of the theory proposed by the love and logic system. I can’t recite it off the top of my head, but can give an example.

    Just a disclaimer, I taught 2nd graders and this methodology worked wonders once I got a hang of it. I am not a parent, however, and can’t claim any success in the home. I can say that it has worked on lots of other audience groups – middle school, high school, adults and even colleagues!

    Anyway – the theory of love and logic is that you express your love/concern for a person while using logical situations that force the other party to make a decision. In your lining up example, love and logic would say to use the language, “as soon as you’re ready Johnny, we can go to recess” or “when everyone is ready, we can return to class.”

    It’s not asking, and it’s not telling, but its taking the responsibility of you and putting it on them. They have to choose what to do next.

    With younger children, it was common to use language that told the them how the adult felt because of the actions they children performed. “How sad, Johnny is making the whole class wait.” “It hurts my feelings when you talk to me that way.” “It would make me so sad if you fell off and hurt your head.”

    I do want to say, I am no expert in Love and Logic and disagree with a chunk of the system, but I found practicing the language they promote to be extremely helpful.

    • Ricky, this is interesting. I wasn’t familiar with Love and Logic as a technique, though I have used those very same techniques to get kids’ attention. One thing about using it with teens is that they are at the point in their intellectual development in which they realize that they have logical minds. This is why teens think they are smarter than their parents and teachers. I will have to give this some more thought and possibly ask you some more questions about the method.

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