“Please put on your pajamas honey.”

Blank stare.

“I’m not going to ask you again!”

Another blank stare.

There have been many times where I’ve given our preschooler a direction and she doesn’t follow through. Who else has been there with me? ?

Shortly after our daughter turned 3, we decided it was time to increase her independence by teaching her to put her pajamas on by herself. The only problem was our uniquely independent toddler didn’t seem to be listening to anything I said. Every time we told her to get dressed, she would stare at us or whine, “But I can’t!”

I often believed she was being defiant. Shouldn’t a preschooler know how to put her pajamas on? How do I get my toddler to listen without yelling at her?

I was at a crossroads. Was my daughter being defiant and strong willed? Or was I missing something? As parents, it can be difficult to tell if our kids are deliberately disobeying or if they really don’t understand what we are asking.

What if they aren’t following through because of a misunderstanding instead of an attitude of defiance?

We often forget that children need simple, explicit directions.

For example, if we tell our toddlers to put on pajamas, they may not know where to start. The reason they aren’t listening to anything we say isn’t because they want to misbehave—it’s because they don’t know specifically what we are asking them to do.

One way to determine if compliance is an issue is to break down the task into simple steps.

Start with the basics: “First find the arm hole. Then put one arm through the arm hole.” It may seem silly to an adult, but many young children need tasks broken down into clear and straightforward steps.  We tried this technique with our daughter at bedtime and we were pleasantly surprised. She started following through and she was able to follow our simple commands!

It turns out she wasn’t being disobedient about putting on her pajamas. We were asking her to do something new and she needed help with the process. Now she can do it all by herself!

Do you ever wonder why your child is disobeying? Instead of disciplining right away, take a step back. Have you been using phrases like:

“Be a better listener.”

“Go play.”

“Get ready for school.”

“Pay attention.”

Although these phrases seem obvious or simple to adults, kids may need more explicit directions. What does paying attention look like? What does getting ready for school entail?  Think about what you are saying and break it down.

Try giving thorough directions and breaking tasks into small manageable steps. You may be surprised to find out your child wasn’t understanding your initial commands!

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