How to Talk to Children: Requests, Directives, and Commands

Directives work best.
Directives work best.

Are you finding that the children just don’t seem to listen to you? You beg and they don’t listen, you try to reason and they don’t listen, you yell and they don’t listen?

Most parents get into a habit of either making too many requests, or they use commands far too often. When both of these are overused, to the neglect of directives, children do indeed become “numb” to the commands and ignoring of the requests.

The first job is to understand some differences between the three: requests can be refused freely, directives need to be complied within a certain time limit, and commands must be complied with immediately. How we use our voice tone, and the exact words we use need to be different for each one. If we use the wrong tone of voice and the wrong phrases, we will not likely get the positive response we want.

The second job is to decide beforehand which of the three you are going to use to address the child. Simply, don’t make a request if what you really want the child to do is follow a directive. Likewise, don’t make a command when you are really intending a request. (If you are used to commanding all of the time, even requests begin to be resented.)

Many parents feel that a child should respond favorably if the parent makes a request with the word “please” in front of it. Many adults are so used to using this word with other adults as a social nicety, that they continue to use it when making directives or commands to children. But the dynamic of using the word “please” at the beginning of a sentence turns into a request that the other person has freedom to refuse. While adults may get a “please do this” directive from their boss, they readily interpret this as a directive and not a request. Children on the other hand, need much clearer and concise methods of receiving directives.Below is a detailed description of each of the three.

The most difficult part of learning how to make effective requests, directives and commands is to get into the habit of performing all of the parts for each one consistently and correctly. If you have another adult to practice with, and to observe you, it might help to get feedback about how well you are following the suggestions.

Another important part to using these approaches to request, directive, and command, is to label and role play them with the child(ren) so that they can begin to recognize the differences between the three. At least for request and directive, you can ask the child following your request or directive which they think it was. Try to avoid using the often used (and resented and ignored) “do this (directive)…and that was NOT a REQUEST!” )

You can also work with the child to make a poster or large chart that will help the child learn the differences between the three:

Request = ? = “answer soon”

Directive = “do this, 1,2,3.”

Command = “right now!”

Request:

Voice tone: pleasant, direct, low to medium volume

Phraseology: start with the word “please”, be specific and simple in the request; let the child know that they have a free choice.

Eye contact: gain eye contact initially, but do not demand it, and when the child drops eye contact simply invite it back by giving consistent eye contact to child.

Proximity: situational; close proximity by how important or private the request is.

Response Time: situational, but a time frame for an expected response is a good habit to shape the child’s behaviors for directives and commands.

Posture: relaxed, open, facial features soft

Directive:

Voice tone: kind, firm, assertive, neutral of emotion, normal volume

Phraseology: do not use the word “please”, start the directive using the child’s name, give ONE step directive, and ONE directive at a time, resist Increase of volume.

Eye contact: direct the child to give you eye contact, if the child breaks eye contact, direct the child again to eye contact, stop speaking when there is not eye contact.

Proximity: always be within eye contact, avoid distances of over ten feet, and under three feet, as these may be misinterpreted as request and command, respectively.

Response Time: clearly stated and routine time frame for positive response, “1,2,3", then consequence for non-compliance.

Posture: feet about 16” apart, square facing child, arms at sides, relaxed and non-threatening, facial features neutral, matter of fact.

Command:

Voice tone: firm, assertive, intense, volume one notch above directive

Phraseology: do not use the word “please”, skip the child’s name, use ONE command, worded briefly as possible, voice volume only as loud as conditions warrant (indoors-outdoors-distance).

Eye contact: gain if possible and appropriate to situation, but do not take time to direct.

Proximity: interestingly, proximity should not be close (inside about five feet), as this conveys threat, not command.

Response Time: immediate; no “1,2,3”, if the response is not immediate, the consequence follows.

Posture: situational, as the situation that warrants a command may be an emergency, and you may be making the command on the run, but generally, feet about 16” apart, squarely facing the child, crossing your arms or hands on hips may serve as an acceptable visual signal, facial features stern (but avoid angry/out of control).

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kaltopsyd 6 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

This was a great Hub. Clear, organized, informative and easy to understand. Thanks for differentiating between the 3 ways to talk to children. Very helpful to me, since I'm a babysitter and plan to work with kids for the rest of my life. Thanks!

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