Ages and stages
Children develop at their own pace, so there’s no right time to
introduce the concept of following instructions. But it’s a good idea to
begin in the first year, so that babies can get used to the idea of
‘No’ and ‘Yes’ for safety reasons, for instance ‘No, don’t touch the
At two years old, you could issue simple instructions such as ‘Sit
down, please’ and gradually build up to more complex requests. Toddlers
learn by repetition, so be consistent.
With pre-schoolers, you could try including two components, such as
‘Please bring me the blue cup and put it on the table.’ At this age, you
can also employ the tactic of delaying rewards as in ‘You can watch
Peppa Pig once you’ve got dressed’. Stick to your guns and don’t make
As children develop and learn more about co-operation, you can offer
more explanations for your instructions. You might also introduce an
element of choice, for instance: ‘Would you like to wear the red or the
According to renowned psychologist Dr Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, most children under seven years old are not capable of fully understanding why instructions need to be followed.
This impacts on how you present small children with important demands
which need to be complied with immediately. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’
are two of the most important words your children will ever learn. But
an emphasis on good manners can undermine you when you need your child
to respond to instructions quickly and without a fuss. If your child is
running into the road, you might say ‘Stop’ or ‘Don’t run’, not ‘Please
don’t run into the road’.
Sometimes parents even hesitate to ask children to do anything
without wordy negotiation and polite explanation, but this may not be
especially helpful with very small children. Children from 7 to 11 years
are capable of logical thinking and therefore more open to negotiation
Setting the tone
Parents and children’s professionals alike agree that the tone of
voice you use is critical. A positive, calm tone is far more likely to
be met with co-operation. It can be useful to calmly ask your child to repeat the instruction back to you. It puts paid to any tearful protests of ‘I didn't understand!’ or ‘I didn’t hear you!’ later on.
Make it fun
As with so many things in life, it helps if you can make it fun. Try these fun ways of getting children to do as they are asked:
- Play a game of Simon Says. ‘Simon says please touch your toes. Simon says please pick up Teddy’ . . . . .
- Hold competitions, such as ‘Who can do up their buttons the fastest?’
- Emphasise teamwork and success with praise like ‘We did that really well!’
Because I say so
We all promise ourselves that we won’t use those annoying phrases
that our parents did, but despite our best efforts, most of us have
blurted out ‘Because I say so!’ or ‘Do as I say’ at some point when the
going gets tough. Clearly, this approach is not very effective when it
comes to securing the daily co-operation of your little ones! There are
certain occasions, though, when it’s completely forgivable, like road
safety or accident prevention. In high-risk situations parents will –
quite rightly – say just about anything to avoid a potential
Most of us spend at least a third of our waking hours daydreaming.
Not always relevant to your current situation, daydreams are often
spontaneous thoughts, creations or recollections of past experiences.
In the 1960s, US psychologist Dr Jerome L Singer discovered that
children’s daydreaming ‘network’ starts at around two years of age and
becomes firmly established during the early school years. Often regarded
as a sign of laziness or time-wasting, daydreaming is in fact necessary
for healthy brain development – just like sleeping.
Although little daydreamers can find it harder to pay attention to
instructions, it’s not all bad news. A substantial body of research
links daydreaming with creativity, healthy social development and strong
All children daydream and ignore some requests. Excessive daydreaming
can be a sign of other problems if children retreat into a fantasy
world, use it as a defence mechanism or have an attention deficit
disorder. If you’re worried about your child's daydreaming, talk to