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Tips for Giving Kids Directions

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We can cue our kids that we’re about to give directions by placing our hands on their arms or shoulders.

We often become upset because we think our kids didn’t follow our directions. But did we ensure they processed them in the first place?

Here are some simple ways to help kids follow directions.

1. Give directions only after our kids’ brain registered that we’re about to speak.
Some kids really can’t “hear” if their back is to the person talking, or they’re unable to immediately transition from what they’re presently doing to tune into what someone is now saying. So this means we may first need to kneel down (for small kids) to make eye contact, and/or give tactile stimuli (e.g. put our hands on their shoulder)—something that ensures we’ve stepped into “their world,” front and center.

2. Have kids spin or jump or rock before (or while) giving directions.
Such movement wakes up the brain, increasing the chances that the information is processed.

3. If directions include materials, distribute those only after telling or modeling what to do with them.
This ensures that kids are less distracted and are not tempted to touch or play with the materials while we’re giving the directions.

4. Demonstrate what we do and do not want to happen.
Suppose we’re giving directions for an art project that requires kids to dip part of a piece of paper into a cup of water. If we don’t also model soaking the paper (as an example of what we don’t want), we can’t be sure that the kids fully comprehended what we meant by “dipping.” This applies to general directions, too. For example, if we want our child to walk directly to (wherever), we also demonstrate straying elsewhere to illustrate what we don’t expect to see.

5. Break up directions (as needed) to ensure kids can comprehend the entire message.
Instead of telling a child to wash his hands, get his shoes, and come to the kitchen, we may need to start with simply: Wash your hands.

6. If including more than one direction, motivate the brain to pay better attention by adding an element of fun.
In such case, we might tell our child to start jumping as soon as the directions start to get silly: “Take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then fly to the moon. No? Okay, take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then come stand on this line.”

7. Verify that the direction was indeed processed by asking a “choice” question.
Perhaps we just told our child to brush his teeth. But before sending him off to do so, we check for understanding: “Are you going to brush your teeth . . . or your nose?” Note that if we make the second choice something silly, it further increases the probability of the brain paying attention.

8. Select the fewest words possible to convey the message.
Fewer words mean there’s less for the brain to process. Compare: “Tiffany, I’m really needing you to bring your backpack to the front door so that you won’t forget it when it’s time to go to school tomorrow” with “Bring your backpack to the front door.”

It’s only when we’ve done all of the above—and the child still does not comply—that we can conclude that he’s choosing not to listen to us. But, more times that not, our kids just need a chance to process the directions—and that requires us to do our part.

Is Your Child in Trouble Again?

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If the child keeps doing the same behavior, should we consider another approach?

I’ve met a lot of kids whose body language changes the minute they think someone is going to talk to them about their behavior. They either look resigned and defeated or combative and hostile. Sometimes they’ll throw in, “I know. I’m a bad kid” or, “I’m always being called out.”

Couple that with a parent, teacher or coach who already views the child’s action as negative, and it’s no wonder that the exchange does not go well.

But what if we wipe out a perception that the child was “bad” or did something “wrong” when we approach her about a concerning behavior?

What if, instead, we first assure the child that we want to help, rather than punish, her?

What if we then communicate in a way that helps her understand why the behavior is worrisome—and therefore helps her conclude on her own that such behavior is not in her best interest?

So how do we do that?

We start by assuring kids that they are not in trouble . . . that we just want to talk to see if we might be able to help them. Upon hearing those words, it’s amazing how many resigned, slouching kids sit up straight or how many hostile kids automatically unfold their arms.

We then explain why the concerning behavior may not serve them well. To do that, I find it helpful to make a connection between what happens in the brain every time the child does the behavior and how that may then cause problems today, tomorrow, and far into the future.

Here are a few examples of how such a dialogue might start:

Behavior: Son hits his mother when he’s upset
Father’s starting dialogue: Every time you hit your mom, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “Hitting a female is okay if you’re angry.” The only problem is . . . there is nowhere on this entire planet where anyone thinks it’s okay to hit a female—at any time. So it worries me that your brain is learning something that it thinks is fine—when it’s definitely going to mess you up.

Behavior: Child doesn’t wait before being given the signal or permission to do something
Mother’s starting dialogue: Every time you don’t wait, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “If I’m feeling impatient, it’s okay to go ahead and do whatever.” The only problem is . . .there are lots of times when it’s in our best interest to wait—and how is your brain ever going to learn that?

For example, what if your ball rolls out into the street and you run to get it without waiting to see if any cars are coming? What if when you’re older and driving, you don’t feel like waiting at a red light—so you just punch it?

Note how the above dialogue is focused on helping the child reflect, not defend, his concerning behavior.

For those who are saying: What? The kid gets off scot-free with this approach?

Guess it depends on the parent’s goal. I’m thinking if the child has already been previously scolded and punished for the behavior—and she still continues to do it—the punitive approach probably isn’t working all that well.

Maybe that’s a sign to try something different.

When Eavesdropping is Good

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It’s sometimes easier to “hear” a
message when eavesdropping.

If you want your child to hear a particular message, then say it to someone else—but while he’s in earshot.

Yes, there’s nothing like a little eavesdropping—especially when we overhear our own name—to make the ears perk up. As parents, we can take advantage of this fact and deliberately create opportunities for our child to eavesdrop.

How does this work? Well, suppose we want to remind our child that he’s not playing video games after dinner if his room isn’t clean. However, if we tell him that directly, he may hear that reminder as nagging or as a confrontational challenge (if he thinks it’s not a fair policy).

Yet, it’s an entirely different ballgame if we casually comment to someone else, “I know that Ryan wants to play video games this evening, and I’m positive that’s only going to happen if his room is clean.”

As the eavesdropper, Ryan still gets the intended message, but now it’s going into the brain in “third” person. He’s merely an outsider hearing a comment that happens to involve him.

And since most eavesdroppers don’t like to announce they’re listening to someone else’s conversation, they probably won’t respond to what they’ve just heard. If so, then we’ve sent the message and avoided a potential squabble. Seems like a pretty easy way to ensure more harmony in the home.

For teens, all we have to do is lower our voice a tad when they’re in the next room, and suddenly they’re tuned in to every word we’re saying. Who knew getting their attention could be that easy?

So eavesdropping probably won’t ever make the list of good manners, but it can expedite communicating a message to our kids without much ado. And that can be really enticing in many households.

Adopting a Calm, Take-Charge Presence

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Kids sense there’s no wiggle-room when adults have a calm, take-charge demeanor.

Sure, most agree that a calm, take-charge kind of presence is ideal, but how do we do that?

1. We own the space in our home.
Our body language says we’re in charge—from the minute anyone enters our castle—and for every moment thereafter. We already know how that feels, and it’s powerful. Think how we’ve wandered into a store or restaurant and just instantly knew who the owner was—without any introduction. That’s the same kind of demeanor and assurance we can adopt in our own home.

2. We believe we need to be in charge.
We understand that if we don’t lead, then someone else will grab that role. Often, that’s a young child who takes over by thwarting everyone else’s sense of calm.

3. We ignore a child’s words and shift our focus to the bigger picture of what he’s needing.
We don’t hear. “I hate you (or whatever other ramped up, angry words are being yelled),” so there’s no temptation to react. Instead, we see an out-of-control child as someone who desperately wants to feel safe—and how can he if he’s learned that creating chaos puts him in charge?

4. We change our mindset so that our body language reflects our thinking.
If we’re feeling helpless (I’ve tried everything—my child just won’t listen), then that’s what our body language says to our child. In contrast, if we believe we’re letting our children down when we don’t take control or that we’re actually hurting them by giving them a false sense of power, our body language automatically shifts to a take-charge demeanor.

5. We use distractions to avoid reverting to prior ways of responding.
If we start to panic (He’s screaming! He’s throwing things! He’s spitting), we don’t go there. Instead, we pick a song to sing to ourselves (or aloud). By the time we’re mooing like cows in Old MacDonald Had a Farm, our body language has already shifted from panic to composed.

6. We acknowledge that we, too, prefer calm, take-charge leaders.
Isn’t that how we want our police officers and fire fighters to respond when called to action? Isn’t that how we want our world leaders to act when making monumental decisions? So why would it be any different for our children?

7. We practice this kind of presence until it feels automatic.
Elizabeth Hasselbeck from “The View” recently shared a story where she put her oldest daughter in charge of the younger siblings while she was in another room. Upon hearing her daughter yelling, she re-entered the room, and asked, “What are you doing? Why are you screaming!?” Her 6-year-old looked up at her and said, “Mommy, that’s what you do when you’re in charge.”

The bottom line: Adopting a calm, take-charge presences makes kids feel secure and protected—and what parents don’t want that for their children?

Are Chinese Mothers Really Superior?

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Parenting presents different challenges when the brain is not organized as intended.

Amy Chua is a professor of law at Yale. Yet, her case that Chinese mothers are superior to Western parents is weak.

In her article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, she claims that the solution to substandard performance is “always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”

Well, lucky for Ms. Chua that her kids must have developed their lower centers of the brain and inhibited their primitive reflexes.  Otherwise, I think she’d have a very different take on parenting.

That’s because it doesn’t matter how much a parent screams or threatens or takes away belongings (she gives several examples where she is proud to have done this) when such development is incomplete. The truth is, no parent—Chinese or Western— can “will” a brain to do something if it’s not wired to do so.

So I’d like to suggest different criteria for identifying superior parents. I think that title should go to moms and dads who know whether their child has completed their lower brain development—and who then learn how to help their child build those highways, if warranted.

That, Amy Chua, is the best way to guarantee our children become who they are supposed to be.

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