Using Specific Language to Get Kids to Listen

When we say “Get Kids to Listen” usually what we mean is: I want my kids to follow my directions. One of the tricks to this though, is learning to give directions that kids can follow successfully.

We were staying at a hotel with a pool when I got a great reminder of how NOT to get my kids to listen to me. Seeing my boys run towards the edge to jump in, I hollered, “No! Boys! Don't run and jump in!”


In their excitement, it was hard enough for the kids to resist their urge to run and jump. It's likely they only heard the end of what I said…making it something like, “blahblahblah…run and jump in!”

After they got out of the pool from their running leaps, my husband said something much more useful.

“Boys, you can jump in the pool only when your toes are hanging over the edge.” He then demonstrated with the boys next to him and they all put their toes over the edge, then jumped.

He told them what TO DO. And he gave them a useful parameter to do judge for themselves if they could jump. (Are my toes over the edge? Ok, I can jump.)

This is a great example of using clear, specific language with kids.

  1. It gave a when/then. WHEN your toes are over the edge, THEN you can jump.
  2. It gave the kids a clear picture of what success would look like (kids can imagine what it looks like to have toes over the edge).
  3. Bonus communication points – he practiced with them, really cementing the idea of what he wanted in their minds.

No matter how much kids hear us, they will be far less likely to do what we're asking of them if we're long winded, using language that's too broad to be meaningful to them, or telling them what not to do instead of what to do. Learn the basics of how to get kids to listen using specific language in this short video I shared with the Bounceback Parenting League:

Getting Kids to Listen: use specific language from Alissa Marquess on Vimeo.

In the video, I mention making sure your child actually knows what the words mean that you're using. You may think this is silly when the words are things like, “behave” or “clean” or even, “careful,” but these words are describing concepts that you've developed over your entire lifetime. Our kids need more context. Here are examples of how to be more specific:

Instead of saying Clean your room! and then getting angry when your child is at a loss as to what to do, you can get specific about, “clean” – some options:

  • Give a check list (Your room will be clean when: clothes are in the hamper, toys are on shelves, trash is picked up, the bed is made and you have vacuumed.)
  • Give a specific number of items to pick up (Please put away the 10 largest things on your floor.)
  • You can break down tasks into smaller chunks. (Ok – first job: pick up all dirty clothes and put them in the hamper!)

Instead of Be careful! Tell what safety precaution you'd like, for instance:

  • Stay inside the the fence!
  • Walk!
  • One person at a time, please!
  • Hold onto the rope!

Side note – if you find yourself saying be careful frequently, and you'd like to step back a bit and give your kids some room to grow, you may enjoy reading this article on ways to increase resilience in your kids.

To set kids up for success and encourage cooperation, we can improve the way we communicate. Being specific with our language means: we use as few words as possible to get across the point (making it more likely kids will recall what we just said!), we use language that's clear and meaningful (expecting that some concepts which are simple to us will need more training and support to be meaningful to our kids), and, most simply, we tell kids what TO DO instead of what not to do (giving them a picture of success to go for). With these shifts in language we can communicate more effectively!

Right now in the Bounceback Parenting League we're working on clear communication for more cooperation and less frustration. You can join our ongoing mission and learn more ways to increase positive communication in your family! Join here: Clear Expectations – Fewer Fights.

Related posts on positive family communication: