How to Avoid Telling Kids What to Do

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My four-and-a-half year old likes to tell me, “Don’t tell me what to do!” I don’t know what to do with this. Thoughts?

-Carrie, Jersey City, New Jersey


Dear Carrie,

When you tell your kid what to do, they can throw a wrench into your day with just one phrase. In this case, whenever possible, we want to avoid telling kids what to do since there are better practices that don’t needlessly take as much control away from kids and don’t allow them to say what your kid said.

Instead of, “Pick up your room right now!” we can say, “Feel free to keep all of the toys that are put away by bedtime.” This allows you to set the limit once and then take action.

Or, you could just ask a question. Asking, “What are you forgetting to do in your room?” assumes intelligence. Walking away as you say it assumes cooperation.

While these statements and questions are best practice, pretty much no one is able to only use them 100% of the time. As long as you are not constantly bossing your kids around, occasionally telling kids what needs to happen next is OK, and a kid refusing a reasonable request from a parent is absolutely unacceptable.

Here’s how I would institute consequences for your kid sometime within 24 hours after she has informed me that I am not in charge (I am).

Kid Whisperer: Oh, blurg. This morning when you told me not to tell you what to do, that really made me sad. I try my best to not boss you around a lot, but part of being a kid is to listen to your parents when they tell you to do things. Right now, you are struggling with this.

Kid: I want a lawyer. What’s going on?

Kid Whisperer: Oh, blurg. I just require that all kids in this house are experts at doing what parents tell them to do.  I have three simple things that I am going to tell you to do so that you can practice doing what I ask. I’m going to tell you to please put away these forks, clean a plate, and wash this window.

Kid: What is happening? Why are you being weird?

Kid Whisperer: Oh, blurg. OK, here are the forks. Please put them away.

Kid rolls his eyes and puts the forks away.

Kid Whisperer: I noticed that you put the forks away when I asked!

Kid Whisperer repeats the script with the plate and the window. Once complete:

Kid Whisperer: Are you an expert at doing what parents say?

Kid: I suppose I am.

Kid Whisperer: Great! Go live your life!

If, at the end of all of this, she experiments with saying that she is not an expert, give her more things to do and continue with the scripts.

If your kid refuses, then her life stops until she successfully shows you that she can comply with a reasonable request from a parent. Consider this “Being a Successful Human Child in the World” Rehearsal. With the exception of school, don’t allow the world to see Kid until rehearsal is over.

Without anyone getting angry, your kid has learned that

  • Her mom doesn’t have to get angry to hold her accountable.
  • She must not be a bad person if her mom can hold her accountable so easily.
  • She can’t get out of responsibilities by being obstinate.
  • Her mom loves her even when her behavior isn’t great.
  • Her mom is the boss.

Not a bad set of lessons to learn all at once!