Following instructions is an important life skill for kids – it starts with a toddler being able to stop for their own safety, and continues through life to doing what your parents need you to do, or your teacher, or sports coach, or boss. And then there is obeying the laws of the land and the word of God. Following Instructions can be about following verbal or written instructions – the heart of it is the same.
There are two aspects to instructions – there are those who give instructions and those who follow the instructions. It doesn’t matter what context you take this topic into – you’ll always have those 2 aspects. So often we focus on the child – where we really need to start with us (the parent) giving the instructions.
The biggest threat to our children being able to follow instructions is our ability to give instructions.
We can give commands which sound a bit like a Commanding General and has no relational aspect to it at all – the command is barked out and expected to be obeyed. Our children may well obey but we aren’t teaching them to have a heart towards following instructions. And we soon learn that unless we bark they won’t do anything. Not a nice place to be in your family.
The other way we can handle instructions is that we stop giving instructions altogether and start giving suggestions. This only feeds the child’s selfish desires to rule their own life their own way! We need to give clear, firm, realistic instructions and yet always considering our deepest desire is to reach and train their heart.
Some key points in giving instructions:
- Know clearly what it is you want your child to do (and why)
- Tell your child what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do
- Give them an understanding of why this is the right thing to do (moral or practical reason why)
- Say it once, expect a response – be prepared to give a consequence when there is no appropriate response. Don’t repeat, nag, or threaten.
- Watch them – this isn’t a matter of trust (that comes after they’ve learnt to follow instructions) this is a matter of you being on hand in case they need more training along the way (or if they do well, you are there to give them encouragement!)
Make sure your Instructions are Heart focused
Giving an instruction isn’t just about getting our child to do what we want. It is an opportunity to teach their heart.
What does instructing the heart look like? The Bible uses the word heart to mean our mind, our soul, our emotions, our will, our character and our passions. This means we are to give instructions to our kids’ minds, their soul, their emotions, their will, their character and their passions. How many of us do that – we are more inclined to instruct their actions. We want right behaviour.
And yet, I believe we short change ourselves (and our children) when we just aim for right behaviour. When we instruct their behaviour they know what is the right thing to do and are likely to do it when you are there watching. When we instruct the heart it gives our children the ability to think for themselves, to make decisions for themselves, to choose a godly path by themselves (which is ultimately our goal).
We all know that what is inside a man comes out in his actions, words and attitudes. Are we giving instruction, direction, words of wisdom to help our children grow in their beliefs, their understandings, their decision making process, their character and their passions? Or are we just telling them how to behave?
So when we give instructions we must give a value behind the importance of either the instruction itself, or the very nature of following an instruction. What makes doing what we are asking them to do the right thing?
What makes stopping when called, or putting away their toys, or doing their homework, or taking turns, or stopping at a stop sign – the right thing?
When we give an instruction – especially in the training phases – and we attach a reason why it is important – we are instructing the heart. When our children ‘get it’, when they know the reason why without being reminded they have the capacity to be internally motivated to do the right thing – even when you aren’t around to give an instruction.
When Instructions are not being Followed
There will be clues in your home life that will tell you if instructions are not being followed:
- Disasters – things just don’t happen the way they should when instructions are not followed. Mess happens – cakes flop – hobby kits are twisted – plants don’t grow. There are natural consequences when we don’t follow instructions – it is pretty obvious to see. We need to teach our children that when we don’t follow instructions and things are broken, or become unusable it is a matter of poor stewardship. Instructions are there to help us learn and do things right.
- Danger – We can shrug off the importance of instructions and say “Men don’t read instructions” or “I’m a person who likes to find out for themselves” or “Don’t have time” or “I know what I’m doing” and in many cases these ways of thinking may work out and we may get away with it – but there will come a time when you should have followed instructions and it will be costly that you didn’t. Following instructions is a way of building on what others have learnt – and there is a risk of falling into some sort of danger when we don’t heed the lessons others have learnt.
- Disobedience – before we jump on our kids for being disobedient ask yourself – have I given clear, encouraging instructions? Have I ensured that those instructions have been heard and understood? Does my child know how to do what I have asked? Disobedience is a heart issue but there is also a skill aspect – and we need to be sure what we are dealing with. Knowing the difference will determine what we do about it.
To teach your child to follow instructions:
Once you are in the right place to give instructions, and you understand the importance of the heart in how you talk to your kids you can start training them to follow instructions. This is where the overlap with obedience happens. The keys for teaching obedience (or following instructions) are:
- You call your child’s name, get their attention and make eye contact
- You give very clear directions including the why – and have every intent to follow through
- Your child responds appropriately – acknowledging they heard and are agreeing to go and do (a simple ‘yes mum’ often suffices, but it can become automatic without any intent to get up and do, so you have to find what works for your child)
- You watch your child go and do being ready to redirect, supervise, and check. (Once your child is characterised by go and do – you can step back and let them report back to you when they are done)
- You check their work/effort and and offer praise or encouragement to do it better
The key in following this 5 point process is that you have to take time to teach and practice each step before you move onto the next. It isn’t a lesson your child will learn in one day. It takes time for them to understand what is the right choice, it takes time for those choices to become good habits. Start off with calling their name and getting their attention. Availability and focus is the first step in following instructions. Unless you have that you won’t get your child to obey.
If your child is struggling with this learning process then maybe there are other heart issues to work on. Behind the ability to follow instructions lay some key heart attitudes:
- Respect for authority (vs. Pride and self rule) This answers the question: Why should I listen and obey you?
- Responsibility (vs. Entitlement) This answers the question: Why should I do anything?
- Availability (vs Self-focus) This answers the question: Does it make me happy to do it?
You can see how any one of these heart attitudes will limit the desire to follow instructions. If you are having a hard time teaching obedience – maybe you need to step back and help your child see their place in the world very much includes other people and their responses need to reflect that.
Note to parents of Teenagers:
There is a caution to those with middle to teen years children: there comes a time when you have to stop with giving instructions – because they should have the ability to do what is right without being told. When you overstep their ability to be self-governed you start to nag. As parents we need to take the strategies that are appropriate to the age and moral development of our children – and move on as they mature beyond that. Read Obedience Requires Responsibility – as there is a bonus download all about obedience in the teen years.
3 Resources to Help us Use God’s Word in our Instructions: We may need to learn the word of God before we can use it in our instruction to our children.
Giving Instructions to the Easily Distracted Child: When giving instructions to the easily distracted we need to focus on how to help them, instead of being frustrated with them.
The Alert Parent Gives Instructions to the Heart: The Alert parent is aware of the situations that will challenge their child’s heart – their beliefs, character, passions and emotions.
Remember these 4 Training Stages to be an Effective Parent: These 4 training stages helps us to teach our children rather than just tell them. Without these 4 stages we are likely to frustrate our children.