The Kid Whisperer: How to get your kid to do what you ask

Scott Ervin, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a 5-year-old who hates being told what to do. Even simple instructions like clearing his plate after dinner or bringing in his things from the back seat of the car are a problem. He not only refuses, he gets angry. Our 7-year-old was never like this. We told her to do things and she did them. I know for sure that he needs to do what we tell him to do, and we have had consequences for his refusal. We need a way of getting him to do what we want without him getting angry, because the consequences are piling up. By the way, asking nicely has no effect! – Matt, Ohio

Dear Matt,

You are right on track. The difficulty that you are experiencing is due to the fact that you may not have used sufficient preventive and mitigative strategies so that you don’t have to use so many responsive strategies (consequences). These consequences piling up is common without the preventive and mitigative strategies, so here is one of each, which I will illustrate in the concluding scenario.

The preventive strategy is to give choices instead of telling your kid what to do. You have to give two choices that you are OK with, and once you give the choices, Kid can only choose “A” or “B”, he can’t make up a choice “C” and get to do that.

Once the choice has been given, it is common that Kid will “forget” to make a choice. If this occurs, the last thing you want to do is to make a demand, and the second-to-last thing that you want to do is to give the choice again. Instead, you can gently guide your kid toward cooperation by using two mitigative strategies: the use of a Statement of Fact and (if necessary) a Question.

Here’s how I’d put it all together with your kid at the end of dinner:

Kid Whisperer: All done! Kid, you can either clear your place by making two trips and getting your plate in one and your cup in the other or, if you are big enough, you can take them both at the same time. Either way is fine.

Kid sees something shiny and takes a long, thoughtful, 30-second pause with his mouth open.

Kid Whisperer: Ooh! The plate and cup are still on the table.


Kid Whisperer walks away in order to assume both intelligence and cooperation.

Kid continues to contemplate something important with his thousand-yard stare.

Kid Whisperer (from the kitchen, while doing dishes): What should you do now?

Kid appears to become conscious. He looks at his plate and cup as if he has never seen them before.

Kid: I will take my plate and cup at the same time. I’m not a baby! I am Iron Man.

Kid clears both his cup and plate at the same time, because he is Iron Man, and puts them both in the sink.

Kid Whisperer: Thank you, Iron Man.

Of course, using these preventive and mitigative strategies will not change the laws of time and space and will not “make” Kid clear his cup and plate. They just make it more likely that he will, so that you won’t have to do as many Learning Opportunities (consequences).

Using these strategies is best for all kids and adults, even your “easy” 7-year-old. They give kids choices and healthy control, and they allow adults to avoid making demands, which no one enjoys giving or receiving.

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