6 Ways to Get Kids to Do What You Want Them To

Here's our rule: Our son has to play quietly by himself in his room until the alarm sounds, or else he has to go back into his crib. Stunningly, improbably, against all odds, it works. Here's why.
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Yesterday afternoon a little after 3pm, my infant son Wally was asleep upstairs and I was lying on the guest room bed working on my computer. My nearly three-year-old son Jay had been playing quietly in the family room but then I heard him begin to walk in my direction. I snapped my laptop shut, dove beneath the covers and pretended to be asleep. Jay paused in the doorway for a few seconds, assessed the scene and went back to whatever he'd been doing. When I was convinced that Jay was gone, I sat back up and recommenced to write.

I knew that if Jay saw me awake, there was no chance he'd leave me alone. We've established a naptime routine where I lie in the bed and Jay has the option either to join me or to play by himself. He knows that whatever he chooses to do, he has to leave me alone so I can sleep. If he'd seen me awake and working, he would have concluded that naptime was over and that he had a legitimate claim on my time again.

This situation points, I think, to the power of routine to shape how kids behave. Most of the time when I tell Jay to go play by himself, he only tries harder to get my attention. But there are a couple of places in our daily routine where he's expected to be on his own. One is naptime. The other is first thing in the morning. When Jay wakes up we take him out of his crib, hand him an alarm clock (set for 8:05am on weekdays, 8:30pm on weekends) and remind him of the deal: He has to play quietly by himself in his room until the alarm sounds, or else he has to go back into his crib. Stunningly, improbably, against all odds, it works.

There are other ways to get kids to do what you want them to. The other afternoon, my wife and I were at the playground, pushing the boys on the swings when we came up with six ways parents can coerce their kids:
  • Routine. "You need to go upstairs and get your pajamas on because we always go upstairs and get our pajamas on after dinner."
  • Bribes. Yesterday I really needed ten more minutes to finish a work assignment. I told Jay that if he left me alone he could have a Girl Scout cookie. For the price of a box of Thin Mints it seems possible we could do away with hired childcare altogether.
  • Threats. "If you don't go upstairs and get your pajamas on right now we're not going to read books tonight." We use threats more than we'd like to, and though Jay almost always relents in the face them, the victories feel hollow and unsustainable. I'm just waiting for the day Jay replies, "Oh yeah? Well I don't give a #$&@ about reading time anyway."
  • Moral Persuasion. "Be nice to your brother because it's the right thing to do" -- that kind of thing. We try this sometimes with Jay but invocations of right and wrong seem to bounce off him. I'm hoping he develops the capacity for guilt sometime soon so that we can replace some of our coercion-through-threats with coercion-through-moral-principles.
  • Parental Authority. This is related to Moral Persuasion -- "You need to wash your hands because I told you to" -- and like Moral Persuasion, it hasn't really worked for us with Jay so far. I can't tell if that's because Caroline and I are feckless, because we're raising a spoiled middle class American child, because Jay's a sociopath or because he's just not old enough yet for this kind of coercion to work. I'm hoping it's the latter.
  • Anger. I've written before about the downsides of anger as a coercive tool: It's often uncontrolled, it scares kids more than it teaches them and it has diminishing returns: I have to yell louder each time to have the same effect. That said, I think there is a place for anger in the parental repertoire. When Jay throws his food on the floor and I yell at him, he'll often just snap back at me. But when he runs into the street, I think my angry reaction helps to reinforce just how important it is that he not do that again.
My favorite of these is definitely Routine. Routines are so neat and clean and easy to manage once you invest the time to get them up and running. And when our routines really start clicking, it's like family life runs on autopilot. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, my wife and I look at each other and think: Why not have four more?