4 Fast Ways to Get Your Kids to Follow Directions

Want your kids to listen up and follow your lead? Mighty Mommy shares four fast tips that will make following directions a cinch.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #502

One of my most memorable parenting moments is when my family waited at the airport to head off to a vacation at Disney World. At that time, we had six children, and I was seven months pregnant. (And going to Disney! Phew!) We were ready to pre-board and our kids were all waiting in line patiently (mostly) to get on the plane.

Before we headed down the concourse to board, a few passengers waiting in line approached my husband and I to compliment our well-behaved children. They were excited to be going to Disney World, but what grabbed a lot of attention was that they listened to our directions—the first time!

Anyone who’s been in the trenches of parenthood knows how frustrating it can be to ask your child to do something only to be ignored. What I didn’t realize at the beginning of my parenting journey was that when my kids didn’t respond to my requests, it wasn’t because they were blowing me off, it was because of how I asked as well as I truly had no expectations for follow-up.

Eight kids later, I don’t profess to have all the answers to raising kids, but I am always happy to share my successes. I once struggled with kids who didn’t always pay attention to what I asked, but once I figured out the winning formula, my cherubs rarely tuned me out.

Want your kids to listen up and follow your lead? Mighty Mommy shares four fast tips that will make following directions a cinch.

Four Strategies to Help Your Child Follow Directions

  1. Attention Please 
  2. Tone of Voice
  3. Clarify
  4. Praise

Here is each tip in more detail.

1. Attention Please

Kids have a wonderful gift of imagination and playfulness. In addition, they know unconditional love, yet can turn on a dime when their uncontrollable need to be stubborn takes over, as well as their unknowing intention to be distracted.

When you want to connect with your child and deliver a request, the first step is to get his attention. You can’t fault him for not arriving to the breakfast table on your timetable when it’s far more exciting for him to stop and play with his trucks or plop down in front of his favorite morning cartoon. The key to success is to gain his attention by being as direct as possible.

When you want to connect with your child and deliver a request, the first step is to get his attention.

By this I mean you can’t cry out your request from two rooms away, or plead and barter in hopes he might listen on the third or fourth try. Instead, put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you’re trying to get your four-year-old to get ready for pre-school, would you stop playing with your favorite toys just to put your shoes on? Probably not. Kids have one job—to be kids. You can’t fault them for staying in their zone of play no matter how desperately you want to get out the door to school on time.

Instead of hollering from the other side of the house for your son to find his shoes and hurry to get in the car so you’re not late for school, stop what you’re doing (yes, no multi-tasking with preparing breakfast, checking your morning e-mails, and combing your daughter’s hair). Go right to your son and give him short and sweet directions. “Sam, please put your truck down and get your shoes for me. When we get home after school, you can play with your toys.” Be sure to make eye contact and get him to acknowledge that he heard your request.

Kids need to learn to follow the rules, but be prepared to practice patience if you and your child are not in a rule-following routine. (You as the parent set the momentum.) The payoff when you’re consistently direct is a child who becomes a rule follower! And if  you have more than one child, you’ll be modeling this approach for all your kids, which in turn can have a positive ripple effect throughout the family.

2. Tone of Voice

In my episode How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids, one of my tips is to turn your voice into a whisper. If you tend to be loud by nature or mindlessly raise your voice to your kids—whether you’re upset with them about something they did or when trying to get their attention—don’t be surprised if eventually they simply tune you out.

Your tone of voice is so important when communicating a request to one of your children. If you're angry, frantic, or come across as disgusted by your child’s actions or lack of following a direction, the end result will probably be that you’re going to be ignored.

Keep in mind that how you’re asking is just as important as what you’re asking.

As stated in my first tip on being direct with your request, if you use a calm, matter-of-fact tone your daughter will listen because you’re asking in a reasonable manner. No one responds well to being yelled at, even if they were wrong and should’ve obeyed a rule.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Yelling Doesn’t Help, May Harm Adolescents study finds the use of harsh verbal discipline—defined as shouting, cursing, or using insults—may be just as detrimental to the long-term well-being of adolescents as physical punishment.

Once you have your child’s attention and she understands you need her to complete a certain task, keep in mind that how you’re asking is just as important as what you’re asking. This combination will set the foundation for your child’s successful follow-through.

3. Clarify

You’re almost there! You’ve personally connected with your child by visiting him in his bedroom, and have firmly but nicely asked him to get ready for school so that he won’t miss the bus again today. While you’re instructing him to stop playing with his toys, you yourself get distracted with the ticking clock and ramble off at least four things for him to do, then hurriedly leave his room to get yourself ready.

Not so fast. Yes, the starting point in building a healthy routine for your child to listen and follow directions absolutely starts with you grabbing his attention and asking appropriately, but it’s unrealistic to think a six-year-old is going to complete your agenda when he may not have been able to process your laundry list of items.

Clarify your request so you know your child has completely understood what you are asking.

It’s critical to clarify your request so that you know your child has completely understood what you are asking. Ask your child to repeat your directions back to you in his own words. This gives your child the chance to ask questions and for you to clarify what you’re asking. For example, you need your son to get his shoes and put them on, go downstairs to eat breakfast, then grab his backpack so he can head out to the bus stop. Keep it simple. “Bobby, please put your shoes on, come to the kitchen, then we’ll get your backpack, OK?”  Now your son knows he needs to complete three things: 1. Shoes; 2. Kitchen; 3. Backpack   

Don’t be so quick to leave the room after he’s repeated the instructions back to you. Sometimes kids need a few seconds to think it through. Patience is a virtue, and it certainly pays off when you’re teaching your kids to become better listeners and to follow directions on a regular basis.

4. Praise

As with anything else when trying to instill or enforce new guidelines such as following directions on a very regular basis, consistency is definitely key. You can’t be wishy washy and decide you’ll calmly ask your children to take care of their homework and chores before dinner one day and start complaining that they never listen to your requests the next if you’re not going to stay the course and guide them into becoming wonderful rule followers. 

When you notice your kids starting to listen to directions, let them know you appreciate them.

Kids ultimately want to please us. They crave boundaries and rules regardless of what they may lead you to believe, so when you notice they do start to listen to directions, let them know you appreciate their actions.

When kids feel good about what they’ve done, they want to do more of it. The key is to keep your praise specific to a task. After your child completes his homework without any nudging from you, you might say, "I noticed you finished your math homework without stopping today. That’s great, Michael, I’m really pleased with your hard work."

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.