Why kids don’t follow directions

Turns out, their inability to do what we ask is kind of a good thing.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

No matter how hard I try, my kid doesn’t do what I ask. I’ll say, “Hey, when you feed the cat, please put her in the kitchen, and then you can finish vacuuming the den,” and my kid will say "OK." Then, ten minutes later, the cat has been fed in the wrong room and the vacuum hasn’t been touched. Why can’t my kid follow simple directions?


Pulling My Hair Out

Dear Pulling My Hair Out,

Just this morning, I told my son to put his socks on three times before he actually did, so I hear you loud and clear on this one. What is it with kids not being able to do what we ask? Are they defying us on purpose? Trying to drive us insane?

Actually, no — they’re just doing what their brains are designed to do. That’s essentially what I learned after speaking with Daniel Berry, a developmental psychologist who studies the development of self-regulation and attention at the University of Minnesota.

Let’s first discuss what has to happen for a kid to follow directions. Number one, they have to remember what you said — they have to keep your directions in their working memory for as long as it takes to accomplish the task (which is not very easy for kids to do). Number two, they have to focus their attention on the thing you’re asking and not get distracted by the 80 other things they encounter along the way. As they walk upstairs to the sock drawer, for instance, they might first come across the dog, who looks like he needs a head scratch. Then they see the library book on the stairs that they really want to thumb through. Then they see the water cup on their desk, and boy are they thirsty. Suddenly, they’re sipping water and thumbing through Harry Potter and wait, why did they go upstairs again? And why is Mom suddenly yelling at me?

The ability to focus attention on one task and inhibit all other competing desires requires something called executive function, yet the part of the brain responsible for executive function — the prefrontal cortex — doesn’t finish maturing until people reach their mid-twenties. (See also: Why college students are technically adults but still do really dumb things.) So as frustrating as it is when our kids just can’t get their damned socks on, there are real biological reasons that explain it.

And actually, kids’ inability to follow-through is good for them. It’s adaptive. Kids are like young scientists, Berry explained — one of their most important jobs is to make sense of the world around them. To achieve this, kids need to take in all kinds of data from their surroundings. They need to pay attention to the things they encounter throughout the day, like the dog and the book and the water. As a kid, “what you want to be able to do is have the machinery that allows you to adapt to a wide range of experiences,” Berry said. You “want to have some freedom to make sense of your world.” If kids’ brains shut out all possible distractions, they wouldn’t be able to accomplish that.

When I spoke with Berry, I was also reminded of an interview I did a few years ago with developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, the author of a number of fascinating books including The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib. A kid “starts out with this brain that's not very good at doing things for a purpose, efficiently, but he's very good at learning how to do new things,” she told me. Then, when a kid becomes an adult, the reverse is true — his brain is quite good at getting things done, but not so good at changing and learning new things.

Put another way, the fact that your kid fails to follow your directions is a sign that his brain is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. “Grown-up brains and children's brains are really designed for different purposes,” Gopnik said, because “children's brains are really designed to learn.” And being observant (i.e. easily distracted) is an important component of learning, even though, when your kid can’t focus on his homework, it can seem like the exact opposite.

Berry also pointed out to me that executive function skills can fluctuate depending on how tired kids are or what mood they’re in. In other words, you might notice that your kid is better able to follow directions on some days than others, and that’s normal. Also, kids develop executive functioning skills at different rates, so you might notice that one of your kids is worse at following directions than your other kids are. Again, that’s to be expected and nothing to worry about. But if you’re worried about your child’s inability to focus, it’s never a bad idea to talk to your pediatrician. In some kids, distractibility can be a sign of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

So — is it impossible to get our kids to do what we ask? Not necessarily. We can make it easier for our kids to follow through by changing how we engage with them. Here are three science-backed suggestions.

  1. Give your kid simple directions — ideally, one step at a time.

    When you ask your kid to feed the cat in the kitchen so that they can vacuum the den, you’re asking them to keep a lot of details in their head at the same time — in a way, you’re almost setting them up to fail. “It may not be that they're not listening to you — but they've missed part of your command because the command is too long,” said Kristin J. Carothers, a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Instead, “it's really important to give directions that are simple, and that are direct and have one part.” Start with “Put the cat in the kitchen,” and once your kid has done that, move onto “Feed the cat,” and then finally, “Vacuum the den.”

    Carothers also suggested that parents give kids five seconds to process instructions before repeating them. It really can take some kids that long to start to respond. Plus, when we repeat ourselves in rapid succession, our kids perceive that we’re nagging them, which does make them more likely to tune out.

    Keep in mind, too, that your kid may not be following directions because they truly didn’t hear what you said. In my newsletter two weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that certain noises can make it much harder for kids to hear and process what we say to them. So minimize distractions when you want your kids to listen to you and do what you ask.

  2. Explain your rationale — why you’re asking what you’re asking.

    Sometimes, as parents, we bark orders at our kids and assume they’ll understand the rationale behind the requests. But often, Carothers said, kids don’t intuitively know, which makes it less likely for them to get why they should comply. When I ask my son to get his socks on, he might not realize that’s because he has soccer practice soon and we need to leave. So instead of saying “Go put your socks on, please,” it can be more effective to say “Go put your socks on, please, because we need to leave for soccer in five minutes.”

    Even better, Carothers said, is to give them the context before you actually make the request, so that the extra information doesn’t distract them. While your kid is eating his snack, you might say, “in five minutes, I’m going to ask you to put your socks on because we have to leave for soccer soon.” Then, five minutes later, when you say “OK, put your socks on,” your kid already knows the reason why, and your request is simple and straightforward.

  3. Tell your kid what to do instead of what not to do.

    All too often we tell kids what we don’t want them to do, rather than what we do want them to do — but positive framing is actually more effective. “Parents will prompt by saying, ‘No, stop, don't do that, stop saying this, don't touch that,’” Carothers said. But “once the kids stop, they don't really know what else they should start doing.” In other words, if you tell your kid to stop running, they might think — OK, stop running and do what? Start jumping?

    It’s far better, Carothers said, to tell kids what you do want — it makes your request less ambiguous, and it’s easier for them to comply. So instead of “stop jumping on the couch,” which I know I said at least once this past weekend, “please sit on the couch” would be better. Also, when your kid is doing what you want, consider using what’s called specific, or labeled, praise: “Great job sitting so nicely on the couch. Thank you.”


    Do you have a question about your kids’ challenging or perplexing behavior? Reply to this post, and I will try to address your question in a future newsletter. I’ll keep you anonymous and may edit your question slightly.

    Pre-order my book!