Mean What You Say, and Say What You Mean:

giving direct instructions



-Horton, the Elephant (Dr. Seuss)


*Note: the names and details of the following situation have been altered in order to protect the well-meaning*

Working with Carers and Educarers as often as I do, I overhear a lot of adult-child interactions, most of which represent commonly accepted behavior management strategies. Lately I’ve been working with many toddler Carers and have noticed a serious need for change in the way we deal with the behavior of this age group.

During a home visit, I recently overheard an exchange between a toddler and her mother. Two-and-a-half-year-old Elana had wedged herself into a corner by a bookshelf to snuggle inside the dog’s toy basket. Mom addressed Elana with the sweet, sing-song-y tone of voice so many people use with young children and launched into a delicate, toddler-tailored lecture:

“Remember Mommy asked you not to get in there? Alright? Those are the dog’s toys and they’re yucky! They could make you sick, okay? Or you might bump your head, and that would really hurt you. Oouuch. Or you might knock things off the shelf and make a mess. Okay? So be good and obey Mommy, please. Or else you’ll have to sit in time out, and you don’t want to go to time out, do you? Nooo, so be good, okay?”

Elana continued to sit in the basket of soft toys, eyes wide and staring at her mom with bewilderment. I could imagine she was thinking the toddler equivalent of:

“What are you talking about? What do you want me to do? Why am I going to have to sit in time out? What do the dog’s cleanliness and the things on the shelf have to do with me? I thought I was good… What’s going on??”

If Elana’s dad hadn’t stepped in to lure her out of the basket with a fun game, she might have been put into time out for not obeying an instruction that was never given to her.

Notice: Not once did Mom directly instruct her daughter to “get out of the basket.” She reasoned with Elana, she vaguely alluded to past instructions given, she told tales of surrounding safety hazards, but never once gave a direct instruction, leaving Elana very puzzled and totally lost in her mom’s long soliloquy.


This is a widely common mistake made when dealing with well-meaning carers and their toddlers. Toddlers are so small and cute and wide-eyed; we sometimes think we need to walk on eggshells around them. Maybe we don’t want to hurt their feelings by being “too bossy,” or maybe we don’t want to initiate one of those infamous toddler tantrums. Sometimes we don’t even realize that our long speech didn’t actually contain a direct instruction! But whatever the reason, it seems the natural instinct of the gentle-hearted to beat around the bush rather than to be direct, which almost always ends in a lose-lose situation for everyone.

When we use long, detailed speeches to instruct our toddlers, they can easily get lost in all the words and tangents and explanations; it can become way too much for them to process. But even if they are old enough to follow our points all the way through the lecture, it’s certain they are zoning in and out the entire time. This isn’t because “young children naturally have short attention spans,” as is commonly believed; in fact, I consider that belief to be false. No, this is because we have interrupted their natural play process to give an instruction, and they are more interested in getting back to their play than they are in listening to a spontaneous lecture. Therefore, we need to keep our comments short and concise, to show proper respect for the child’s work (for at this age, their “job” truly is to learn through play), while making sure our own needs are met, too.

When giving toddlers instructions, we need not make it complicated or include details. With young children, the more concise an instruction, the better!

Here are some things to keep in mind as you practice your direct instructions:


It’s okay to give a simple explanation about why we’re making a certain request. In many cases, in fact, it’s even most respectful to the child to give them the reason. However, I’ve found that most reasons are way simpler than we try to make them! “It’s not safe to…” is nearly a one-size-fits-all explanation for most instructions we give. For Elana’s Mom, “It’s not safe to play in the dog’s basket. Please get out of it now” would be perfectly ample for getting the message across. If Elana wants to know why it isn’t safe, she will ask! And Mom can have that discussion with Elana once she is safely out of the dog’s basket.


Somehow through the years it’s become the norm to speak to small children with high-pitched, sugary voices. In case you are wondering about my official ruling on this tone: Save it for your furry friends. Speaking to children with these little, sweet voices is not only obnoxious for all bystanders to hear; it is literally belittling! Toddlers are whole people, deserving of respect. Use the same voice when talking to small children as you would use to address a beloved peer: friendly and respectful. That friendly, respectful tone is much easier to take seriously as far as your toddler is concerned.

When you give an instruction, however, add to your friendly and respectful tone confidence and firmness. Those sweet tones we often use, coupled with phrases like “okay?,” indicate that we ourselves are unsure or timid about giving the instruction. How can a toddler feel safe to follow the directions of a leader who doesn’t have confidence in their leadership abilities? If you expect your toddler to take the instruction seriously, speak with a tone that leaves no wiggle room.


There is a difference between the friendly-respectful-confident-firm tone I’ve described above, and the stern tone of voice our mothers and schoolteachers used. If you pull out your stern voice each and every time you have expectations for your kiddo, that would feel disrespectful, and likely bring up feelings of defensiveness or rebellion, which would keep the child from being able to fully hear the message of your expectations. Instead of stern or sing-song-y, your tone should communicate, “I feel confident in my relationship with you and in my responsibility and capability to keep you safe. I definitely mean what I’m saying and expect you will follow my directions. I’m not open to changing my mind.”


Direct instructions and confident tones are not always natural to master, but don’t give up. They are worth the work, so keep practicing. If you notice yourself using a sugary-sweet voice, launching into a long lecture, or asking your toddler if its “okay?” for them to comply with your instruction, pause. Take a breath, check in with yourself, find your respectful confidence, and start over. With time, you’ll notice that tone and structure coming more naturally to you, and you’ll notice a toddler who has more confidence in the leadership skills of her carer.


Today and always, fellow carers, I wish you well!

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