Editor’s note:  This is an excerpt from the book The Soft-Spoken Parent: The Top 10 Strategies to Turn Away Wrath.

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Children only learn the meaning of our words by connecting them to our actions. When our words and actions don’t match, they believe our actions and ignore our words.

For example, parents all over the world tell their children to put on their shoes or they will be left behind when the family goes to church. Then we scurry off to ready ourselves and our Sunday school lessons. We return a few minutes later and find that the child has played around in the interim. The shoes are not on the feet. We explode, “I told you to put on your shoes!”

Our children might reasonably respond (if they were able to express themselves in this way), “Actually you offered me options. I thought the stay-at-home option sounded pretty good. When you dashed off, I reasonably supposed that I was free to choose. I think I’ll stay home and play.”

Or they might say, “Based on experience, I only think you’re serious about my shoes when you turn red and start to scream. Until then, I assume you are just talking for fun.”

Sending Clear Messages

This lesson is vital for the soft-spoken parent. We often ask children to do things but we don’t send clear messages. We leave them wondering if we mean it. When they don’t do what we have asked, we become angry. We wonder, “Why don’t they do what we ask?” But our children might ask, “Why do you so often ask me to do things when it is clear that you don’t intend to follow up? I believe your actions more than your words.”

See if any of these situations seem familiar:

  • “If you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have dessert.” They don’t eat dinner and they still get dessert.
  •   “I’m counting to three!” When we get to three, we issue a new threat. Finally we scream: “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you!”
  • “Clean up your room or you can’t go out to play.” We get distracted. They go out and play while the room remains a wreck.
  •   “You may not have a candy bar.” We get tired of whining so we provide a candy bar.

Often when our children do not respond to our weak requests, we get mad at the children. Yet we share responsibility. We need to say only those things that we intend to enforce. We should make our actions match our words.

For example, when we ask children to put on shoes, we might help them get started. Or we might have an older sibling help them. Or we might take a few minutes to make a game of it with them. Or we might take the child and the shoes and get them together in the car.

Beyond Threatening: Motivating Children Effectively

My colleague Laura allowed her boys to watch cartoons only after they were fully dressed and ready for school. Our friend Toni had a rule that the children were not to bring cookies into the living room. When Julie wandered into the living room bearing a cookie, Mom could invite: “Oh! You want a cookie. Let’s go in the kitchen to eat it.” Another parent, Susan, had an agreement with her daughter that she would practice the piano for thirty minutes before dinner. When the daughter forgot, the dinner was saved until the practicing was completed.

We should only make rules that are important enough to enforce. Some may protest, “But that takes so much time!” I’m guessing that a scientific study would find that parents who take time to be sure that their requests are taken seriously will invest hundreds of hours LESS time over a lifetime than the parents who nag, cajole, and concede. And they will have lower blood pressure and better relationships with their children.

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of preaching.

Stay tuned for the last strategy next week. Or purchase the book, The Soft-Spoken Parent: More than 50 Strategies to Turn Away Wrath by visiting your local LDS bookseller or purchase online by clicking here.

If you are a part of a study group, you may be able to arrange a quantity discount with your bookseller. We recommend this book for Mothers’ Groups, and Family Discussion Groups, as well as Book Groups.