There are many times every day when our children are not doing anything wrong, but we have one eye on the clock so we want them to move on from what they are doing in order to start doing the next thing on our agenda.
We would like our children to respond as soon as we give an instruction, but often they’re so absorbed in what they’re doing that they barely seem to hear us. And even when they do hear, they don’t want to stop playing.
It can be infuriating when children don’t pay attention to what we tell them to do. It’s easy for parents to drift into the habit of repeating, pleading, cajoling, bribing, telling off, threatening... and eventually maybe even shouting.
Children aren’t born knowing that they should do what a parent tells them to do. Following an adult’s instructions is a habit, and all habits take a while to learn. To establish this important habit, we need to show our children that we mean what we say, and that they do need to follow our instructions, even when they would rather be doing something else.
The Never Ask Twice Method is designed to do just that: to guide your child into the habit of doing what you say the first time you say it, even when he doesn’t want to. This is a friendly, respectful method – and it’s very effective.
The Never Ask Twice Method has six steps. Most of the time you will only need the first three steps. But there will be times when your child is more resistant. The remaining three steps will help transform reluctance into willingness.
Here are the six steps:
1. Stop what you are doing, stand near your child and look at him.
If your child is not yet in the habit of first-time cooperation and you ask him to do something without first going to him and giving him your full attention, he is not likely to pay much attention to you. For example, when you tell your child to tidy her room or to start her homework, you may barely look up from what you’re doing. You don’t seem to be taking your own instruction seriously; don’t be surprised if when you do look up she hasn’t done what you’ve asked.
2. Wait until your child stops what he is doing and looks at you.
You need to get your child’s attention before giving your instruction so that he will take you seriously. We often under-estimate the time it takes a child or teenager to shift his thoughts away from what he is doing and to start concentrating on what we are saying. Once your child is looking at you, it is harder for him to pretend he didn’t hear you. Steps One and Two show that we respect the child. We are treating the child as calmly and politely as we would treat a friend or a stranger. Children respond much more positively to a friendly, calm approach.
3. Give the instruction - clearly, simply and only once.
Giving the instruction only once is important. If you repeat yourself, your child will soon see that he doesn’t need to do what you ask the first time you say it. Instead, he will learn that he can wait until you start nagging or become upset. We want to teach our children to do what they are told the first time we say it.
Most children most of the time will cooperate after Step Three, if you’ve done Steps One and Two. As soon as he starts to cooperate, remember to show your appreciation.
But in case he hasn’t make a move in the right direction, go to:
4. Ask your child to repeat the instruction back to you - accurately, thoroughly and in his own words.
Once your child has told you in his own words what he should do, you both will know that he has heard and understood. He is more likely to do what you have asked after he hears himself saying what he needs to do. Most of the time this is all that is necessary to get cooperation. Remember to praise!
But if your child is digging his heels in, go to:
5. Stand and wait.
Standing conveys authority; we are showing that we are in charge and that we mean what we say. Standing and waiting demonstrates that we are determined to follow through; we’re not getting distracted and we’re not giving up. At this point your child will probably get up and do what you’ve asked. But if not:
6. While you’re standing and waiting: Descriptively Praise every step in the right direction, no matter how small. Also Reflectively Listen to how your child might be feeling about what you have just asked him to do.
Praising is very important. Your child needs to get the message that you still like him and that you are confident that he will cooperate. Staying positive and Descriptively Praising a resistant child isn’t easy at first. It’s not what we feel like saying! However, Descriptive Praise does usually work to shift a child’s mood and improve his willingness.
We can praise every tiny step in the direction we want. We might say:
“You’re sitting in the right place”, when he is sitting on his chair but still refusing to start his homework.
“You’re holding your jacket,” even though he hasn’t started putting it on yet.
We can praise past good behaviour:
“Yesterday you did everything I asked you to do, with almost no arguments.”
“You know how to keep your room tidy. In fact, you’ve kept it tidy for almost a week.”
We can praise the absence of negative behaviour:
“Even though you don’t want to empty the dishwasher, you’re not being rude.”
“It looks like you’re worried you won’t like this new game, but you’re not pushing it away.”
When Descriptively Praising the absence of negative behaviour, we should only mention things that the child sometimes does wrong. For example, if your child is rarely rude, or would never push a game away, we will need to find something else to Descriptively Praise. Otherwise it might sound insulting.
With Reflective Listening we show that we care about his feelings, not just about his behaviour. For example, we can say that he seems cross that he has to put his Legos away. This helps him to feel understood.
Here are some frequently asked questions about the Never Ask Twice Method:
Q. What if my child doesn’t do what I ask after Step 3 or 4? I don’t have hours to stand and wait for him.
A. When you use the Never Ask Twice Method, it’s rare for children to refuse to cooperate. When you stay calm and positive, children naturally become more willing. Usually what makes children angry and defiant is a parent’s annoyance, the nagging, lecturing and blaming.
It’s true that if your child is not yet in the habit of first-time cooperation most of the time, at first the 6 steps may take longer that you would like. Therefore we suggest that you pause for a moment before giving your child an instruction in Step 3 if you sense he may not want to do it. Plan ahead; make sure you have the time to follow through with all six steps, in case this turns out to be necessary.
Over time, your child will see that you really do follow through until he cooperates, so he will cooperate more and more quickly - most of the time!
Following the Never Ask Twice Method might result, the first few times, in your child being late for school, or your not having time to prepare dinner or possibly having to postpone a trip. All these situations are inconvenient, but they are much less important in the long term than guiding your child into the habit of first-time cooperation. Serving sandwiches for dinner for a few days because you didn’t have time to cook, or even a few days of your child arriving late for school, are not going to damage you or your child. But a child who does not easily cooperate will present more and more problems as he grows into a teenager and then a young adult.
You’ll need to invest some time and effort in the short term in order to benefit yourself, your child and your family in the long term.
Q. Does the Never Ask Twice Method always work?
A. Yes, this method always works, if you don’t give up. In our years and years of experience, we have never seen it fail. This is because all children want to please their parents, as long as we stay friendly and calm. Another reason this method always works is because there is no Step 7 that says: After a while, give up.
However, please note: The Never Ask Twice Method should be used only when you are sure your child knows how to do what you have asked. If you want your child to do something she cannot do or thinks she cannot do, then she will need some support from you. The Never Ask Twice Method is designed to deal with lack of cooperation, not with lack of skill. If your child lacks the skill to do what you’ve asked, you will need to teach him how to do it.
For example, schools sometimes set homework that is too difficult. If a child is not confident that he can write a good history essay, or if he doesn’t know how to answer a maths question, he needs some guidance from us. Just insisting that he get on with his homework will not usually work.
Q. What do I do if my child storms out of the room after I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do?
A. Don’t go after him. If we follow him around the house, we are letting him lead us. Instead, we need to be in charge!
We cannot force a child to do what we want at any specific moment. But sooner or later, and usually sooner, he will come back to you wanting something. You can then tell him that you will be glad to talk about whatever he wants as soon as he does what you have asked him to do. Over time, by using the Never Ask Twice strategy, you will influence him and guide him into the habit of cooperation.
Q. When my child is watching TV or playing computer games, he doesn’t pay attention to anything I say. What can I do?
A. We recommend that all screen activities happen only after children have completed everything they have to do, from homework and music practice to tidying their belongings and household chores. Once your child has earned his screen time by completing all his tasks, let him enjoy it, and don’t interrupt him to tell him to do something.
Q. Do I always need to go through all the 6 steps?
A. Always start at the beginning with Step 1. Eventually most children most of the time will follow your instruction as soon as you give it (Step 3). All you need to do then is Descriptively Praise them for following your instruction without any fuss.
After a while many children will do what they are supposed to do even before you say it because your presence (Steps 1 and 2) is enough to remind them of the usual routine, and they just go and do it. Of course, once a child does what he should do, you don’t need the remaining steps.
Q. My child often knows exactly what he should do next because we have the same routine every day. How can I teach him to do it on his own, without my having to tell him each time?
A. If your child probably knows what he needs to do next, instead of giving the instruction in Step 3, you can go straight to Step 4: “What do you need to do now?” If he says he doesn’t know, ask him to take a sensible guess.
We’ve made a separate poster with the six steps of the Never Ask Twice method so that you can post it on your wall to remind you.