“Keep It Simple, Sweetie!”  It is a message I’ve tried to honor in my parenting through the years.  However, my interpretation of “keeping it simple” hasn’t always been the best.

My initial idea of using simple messages and directions for children was exactly that: use as few words as possible to get the point across.  I was great at using few words, but I was lacking in getting the point across.  For instance, I might tell my four year-old to “clean up” or “be good”.  But, to a four year-old, those are quite broad terms!  Over time (and trial and error), I have found a happy balance between short directions and being specific.

When giving instructions to a child, it is important to let them know EXACTLY what they need to do and how to do it.  Phrases such as “I wish” or “you should” don’t hold much value for them; the directions then seem optional instead of necessary.  Also, tone of voice can have a huge effect on a child’s response to a command.  Using a calm, even voice lets them know who is still in charge.  Raising a voice or even yelling simply lets the child know that they have won.  They now know how to push those buttons!

Instead of saying “Clean up,” a better phrase might be, “Clean up the blocks please.  This means pick them up and put them on the shelf.”  Be specific in directions.  Asking a child to “Be good” is quite broad and open-ended, but telling a child to “hold a hand when we go into the store” is a specific request for good behavior.

Also, be sure to state consequences clearly when necessary.  Consequences should not be a surprise factor; children should know the expectation and what will happen if that expectation is not met.

Following directions, testing authority and misbehavior are all ways that children learn and develop.  Using clear, specific directions in a neutral, calm tone will help children learn lifelong social skills.