Giving kids and teens reasons for the things we want them to do

Imagine that every day you received a hundred instructions to follow, most of which you didn’t understand the rationale, relevancy or reason for. All day you listened to people saying things to you such as:

Do NOT put red items on a wooden table.  NEVER speak while you are holding something.  You MUST NOT blink in the kitchen!  Pink socks should not touch your hands!!  Please make sure you reverse those cushion covers BEFORE three pm.

You might learn and “know” these rules pretty quickly, but not fully understanding the reasons to the rules, make them tiresome and less likely to be followed. 

This is the world some of our children live in.  They are constantly being told what to do, when and how - and a lot of the time, they don't know why these things matter.  

When kids and teens don’t fully understand the rationale, limitations of and reasons behind our instructions, it is more difficult for them to be motivated to follow them.   Sure they might be able to do what we ask, but they are more likely to "forget" or not be bothered doing things exactly as asked.

Often the more information children and teens have about a range of life issues, the reasons why the things we ask them to do matter, the reason why the things we DONT want them to do causes them and us problems - the more likely they are to act in positive ways.    

Therefore, when we ask children to do something, it is helpful to give them information about why we want them to do this.  In addition, we want to give them as much information as possible and is reasonable about the negative consequences of the difficult behaviour.  Sometimes this only takes an extra second or two.  Take some everyday examples:

Pack up your toys now

When you pack up your toys tidy your room, we can walk through it without falling over the toys and that way we can all stay safe.

Take turns with your brother

When you let everyone have their turn in order, it means that people feel happy and no-one gets upset.  And that means we can stay a bit longer because there is no fighting between you kids.

Get dressed for school quickly

Getting dressed for school  before 8.30am it means that you and I can have some fun talking time about the day and I won’t be getting frustrated with you.

Only eat in the kitchen

Please keep the food in the kitchen, then we don’t have to clean up the whole house at night time, which means there is more time to relax and watch TV after tea.

It’s 7.30pm, you need to get to bed

The reason I would like you to go to bed at 7.30pm is that your brain actually grows bigger while you sleep.  When you get lots of sleep at night, you get smarter and smarter and that means you will be able to learn quicker at school and even play xbox better!

Eat up your vegetables

Do you know why we like you to eat vegetables?  Because they make you grow strong.  Do you know if you eat vegetables your whole life you might even get stronger than Daddy!

Stop looking at my cards

Please keep your eyes on your cards only.  When people cheat it means no-one really feels like playing anymore.

Stop whinging!

Please don't interrupt me while I'm talking to your Dad

Please try to talk in a normal voice

When you talk in a whiny voice, adults often get stressed and are more likely to not listen properly to you.

Please let me finish first and then I can relax and you guys can talk

I'm worried I'll forget this information that I need to tell Dad, and that is going to cause problems for me later. 

A few points about how and when to give information to children.

It’s about information not guilt!  When we give reasons and information to children, it is not about trying to make a child feel guilty, or worried or resentful.  We are simply giving information and knowledge to them.  This means giving information in a calm and caring voice not an angry one.  It also means being very brief, rather than this being a lecture.  Say it once, quickly and move on.

Try to sometimes give this information before or after the instruction, rather than right at the time.  If children are resisting an instruction, then sometimes giving information can turn into an argument.  To avoid this, try to give information and reasons to children before critical times.

It needs to be done at developmentally appropriate level.  Obviously giving a 2 year old complex information about what nutrients are needed for a healthy body is not going to work.  When in doubt, make information short and simple.

What about when it just becomes an argument?  If children are upset about an instruction they will naturally want to debate the reasons given.  This is not a excuse for us to refuse to provide reasons, it just means we need to put limits on how much we will talk about it.  For example, once clear information has been given, a parent can choose to not give anymore.  “I’m very sorry that you are upset, but I don’t want to talk anymore now about the reasons for this:”.

What about “just because I told you so”?  Some parents tell me they shouldn’t have to give reasons, and their children should “just obey them”.   Perhaps if we are wanting to raise a child who becomes a soldier this might be our aim.  But most parents I know want to raise a thinking, independent child.  This means giving information and reasons on a regular basis.