Young Children Don’t Understand Generalities

“No way!” you say, quite sarcastically. “Tell me something I don’t know!”

But wait a moment…

How many times have you told your child, “Clean your room!” and then expect them to do it? And then they don’t? And then you get frustrated and angry and start issuing threats or bribes in hopes that your child will clean their room? I’ve done it every time I’ve told my daughter to clean her room, and I’ve done it all the time in my classroom. What ends up happening is your child gets upset and you are worn out mentally, trying to figure out what it will take to get them to clean their room.

What if all you need is a change in your choice of vocabulary? The word “clean” is a generality, especially when it comes to cleaning something as vast as a room. There are many, many steps involved in cleaning a room, especially if your child’s room ends up looking like my daughter’s when she is done playing in it. This massive amount of steps makes the term “clean” much too general for many young children.

What about the phrase “put your toys away”? Well, where is “away”? It really could be anywhere, including in the middle of the floor. This is another generality that young children will not understand.

What I have found, and the method that I have started using at home as well as in my classroom, is that children need everything spelled out for them. As Denzel Washington’s character says in the movie Philadelphia, “Now, explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old.” What is implied here is that everything needs to be spelled out at this age, and the implication is true.

Here is how I have changed my vocabulary so that my daughter and the children in my classroom will understand what is being asked of them:

  1. Start with the child’s name. This is an attention-getter. If you say their name, they are more likely to give you their full attention. If you don’t get their attention, keep saying their name until you have their full attention, or cut their access to whatever it is that is taking their attention from you (such as the TV or a specific toy).
  2. After you say their name, give them a specific command. Rather than saying, “Put your toys away” or even “Put that toy in the bin,” say “Put that toy airplane in your toybox” or “Put that block on the shelf”.
  3. Use arm and hand gestures. Point to what you want the child to do. This adds another element to it. The child now has two senses working in order to decipher what you want: hearing (listening to the command) and sight (looking at what you want). The more of their senses that you can put to use, the more of their brain is engaged in figuring out what you want, and the more likely it will be that they will be successful in fulfilling your request.

It really is this easy. Using this method has cut down the amount of time it takes my class to clean up the classroom after play time, and it has cut down the amount of time that it takes my daughter to clean her room. At first it will take a lot from you as a parent or teacher, but what I have found since I started using this method two or three weeks ago is that, after a while, the children start to clean up on their own without you standing there pointing at everything all of the time. But because you have stood there and showed them so many times, you have taught them what you expect when you tell them to clean their room.

Next time you tell your child to do something, try to avoid using generalities that your child will not understand, and opt for using more specific language. I guarantee that your life and your child’s life will be a lot happier for it.