Keep Your Instructions Short

A renowned politician, famous for blustery and beautiful oratory, came to the city where Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, lived. Like the rest of the community, Mr. Clemens wanted to hear the great orator, and as a prominent citizen, Clemens was invited to attend. Due to the overflow crowd of dignitaries and community pillars, members of the media were prevented from listening inside the hall, so the reporters waited anxiously outside. Many waited expressly for Mr. Clemens’s comments, expecting to pick up some tidbit of his well-known humor and insight for their various morning papers.

The speech lasted for the scheduled time and then some. An hour passed, an hour and a half, two hours! Finally, the crowd broke from the auditorium. At long last Clemens appeared, his prominent eyebrows furrowed in obvious frustration. The first reporter to corner him asked him the question on all their minds. “Well, Mr. Clemens, what did he talk about?”

“You know,” Clemens cocked his head to consider the question, then continued, “he didn’t say.”

            Like the pompous politician, we parents often launch a boatload of words but fail to get our points across.  We do well to keep our words to a minimum, especially as we instruct our children. Young children, in particular, get overwhelmed by a storm of words, and this is especially true when all we want to do is give them an instruction.

            A good instruction is short and sweet. "Johnny, I need you to pick up the toys in your room now." With thirteen words, I've gotten Johnny's attention, told him the job to do, the scope of that job (in your room) and the timeframe (now). Don't overlook that first point—to get their attention. Like you, your child has an agenda and just because you have an urgent instruction doesn't mean it's easy for them to break their focus and listen to you. In addition to calling your child's name, make sure their gaze is turned to you. If you call to them from another room, barking out an order in the hopes that they will stop what they are doing and obey, you are starting out with at least one strike against you. Make the odds better by getting close to your child, getting their attention (eyes on you) and then give them the short and sweet instruction.

            Don't get caught up in a defense of your position when they ask "why?" Simply say, "You obey first, then we can talk." Often our children use the 'why' question to delay obedience, and then we get dragged into a long dissertation on why you have to get this or that done in time for the next scheduled event, etc. They don't need to know your reasons for an instruction. You may give them your reasons if you want to, but not so they can judge whether to obey or not. They should obey promptly because that's the right thing to do.

This is one of the five steps to help parents build a better instruction routine from the seminar "Cooperation, Consequences, and Keeping Your Sanity." The Instruction Routine is one of four major sections of that seminar. Click the link to learn more about it.