18 Words At A Time: How to talk so kids will listen (and possibly do what you ask)

This post will help you talk clearly and kindly to the kids in your life. You’ll learn how to stay calm and retain authority while having wonderful relationships with magical and miraculous creatures. 

Keep it Short

With kids you have up to 18 words. After 18 they lose interest and your voice becomes only so much buzzing background noise.

1. Speak the child’s name to get their attention.
2. Wait until they look at you. If they don’t hold their hand. (Gently, no tugging.)
3. Look them in the eye and deliver the order or message—remember your 18 word limit.
4. End by asking them to repeat your instructions or what they understand you want them to do. (Don’t ask “do you understand?” They’ll just nod yes so they can go play.) Adjust this step so it’s appropriate to the child’s age.

When you make a request, don’t explain all the details (remember that 18 word limit) or use emotional blackmail (“Mommy would be so happy if you cleaned your plate”).

  • Simply tell them what you want them to do, then follow up to make sure they comply.
  • You can ask if they want more details. (Chances are they won’t; kids are busy.)

If they don’t comply, call the child again, make a gentle and positive correction (“Susy, come here please. Thanks. Please put your cup in the sink. That’s right, thanks!”)

  • If the child didn’t comply, they may need help. (“Can you reach the sink or do you need a stool?”)
  • Or maybe they didn’t understand. (“Sorry; I should have been more clear. Please put your cup in the sink before you go play.” 18 words.)

16 Tips for Wonderful, Respectful Relationships with Kids

  1. No violence—no hitting, belittling intimidating or yelling.
  2. 18 words at a time, maximum.
  3. Be in the same space as the child—don’t shout into another room; squat down so that you’re eye to eye.
  4. Make one clear request at a time. Include the deadline. (What by when)
  5. Don’t make it a question if it’s really a command.
  6. Use positive reinforcement—smiles, hugs where appropriate, warm words and tone of voice.
  7. Speak with calm authority.
  8. Give options, especially to younger kids. Instead of “bedtime!” try “It’s time for bed; will you wear your yellow pajamas or the green ones?” Choices empower the child, and decrease their need to take a stand.
  9. Cursing—don’t use words you don’t want your kids to use. Explain that some words are offensive to some people; that Grandma (for example) would be really sad to hear the child say them. Tell the child to use those words with care, and not around you please.
  10. No means no. Make your “no” stand. Letting children wheedle you into changing your mind you trains them to beg, and teaches them that your decision is never final. Kids do only what works—if they nag and beg it’s because that worked in the past. Tell the child that if they continue to beg, the likelihood of them ever getting it decreases.
  11. Sympathize when the child doesn’t get what they want. “You’re right, that is the coolest thing ever. No, we’re not buying it. But I totally understand why you want it.” Where appropriate, suggest the child save up for it, or ask for it as a birthday gift. If the child says that their friend Joey has one, you can simply say “wow lucky Joey. No, sorry sweetie, we’re not getting it.” You can explain that it’s against your values or not in the budget. If they continue to complain, ignore them. Your child will survive the disappointment.
  12. Don’t expect your child to agree with a punishment or unpopular decision. Often parents ramble on trying to get a child to agree.
  13. Do not—never ever—follow your statement with “ok?” unless “no” is an acceptable answer. Many adults shoot themselves in the metaphorical foot by saying things like “it’s time to leave now, ok?” The kid of course says no it’s not ok and the parent is stuck. They either show the kid that his opinion doesn’t count by leaving anyway, or lose power and let Kiddo run the show.
  14. A note about “we’re leaving soon” warnings: Kids have no sense of time. Telling them you’re leaving in ten minutes is a good idea but very abstract. “We’re leaving soon” is better. It also avoids arguments about exactly how many minutes have passed since the warning. Give only one warning, about ten minutes before you will leave. (And you have to go then, don’t get distracted saying goodbyes.) Multiple, countdown-style warnings are unnecessary and waste everyone’s time and energy. Your kid won’t want to leave no matter how many warnings you give.
  15. Life is not fair. When your child complains about this, agree. “You’re right, life is unfair. And aren’t we lucky—if life was fair we’d be living in a hut with no Netflix.” Feel free to break the 18 words rule in this situation; I’ve found that the longer I ramble on, the fewer complaints I heard.
  16. In times of punishment, no matter how mad or frustrated you are, be sure the kid knows you still like them. Be angry at the actions, not the kid. Kids thrive best in the sunshine of love.

Lucinda

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Lucinda Atwood is a coach, speaker and author who helps clients build expertise and confidence in their speaking and leadership skills.
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