Your Questions Answered: Not Repeating Yourself

Today I’m joined by my friend and co-worker, Laura Pitney, to do another installment of Your Questions Answered. The question for today is quite interesting: “You say not to repeat yourself, but I’m wondering how you teach this? I have a five year old. Let’s say I get her attention, look directly into her eyes, and tell her ‘Go put your pajamas in the laundry.’ She starts the journey, but gets sidetracked on the way there. Five minutes later, I notice her pajamas on the kitchen floor, beside her, while she’s playing with the toys she found on the way. How do you handle this situation if you don’t repeat yourself? This is my life right now, even my older girls are guilty of similar behavior sometimes.”

Laura: That’s a tough one. It sounds like she’s doing the right steps: making sure the child’s looking at her and making sure she’s hearing her. But it’s the follow through.

Sonya: Yes, and I think one helpful thing with that follow through is—in order to get that habit established—during the first few weeks of getting it established, mama needs to go with her. Say, “Okay, go put your pajamas in the hamper” and walk along beside her to help her stay on task, to help her brain keep moving forward. I know that’s going to grate a lot of mamas the wrong way. They’ll think, “I don’t have time for that. I’ve got to be doing all these other things.” But hopefully, it will only be for a short time. And just think, if you get that habit established—

Laura: —then you won’t have to be right next to them.

Sonya: Exactly, and you’ll reap the benefits of that follow through.

Laura: Also in other areas, because it would apply to other areas.

Sonya: That’s true. So I think going with her is going to be one good benefit.

Laura: What are your thoughts about this scenario: your child is looking at you; you have the eye contact; you’re telling her what to do; you’re saying, “Okay, did you understand?” And they say, “Yes, ma’am.” Do you think there is a value in having them repeat back the instructions that were given to them?

Sonya: Sometimes. I think so. It’s almost like a form of narration.

Laura: Comprehension, yes.

Sonya: Exactly. And it takes away any excuses they have, like, “Oh, I didn’t understand,” or “oh, I didn’t hear you,” or something like that. So I don’t see a problem with having them repeat it back. If you want them to put it in their own words, you can, or put it in your words; but that way, there’s no miscommunication. That’s an important adult skill, actually, when you’re having a conversation with your spouse or someone else. A lot of times people say, “Tell back to the person what they just said, to make sure you understood it correctly.”

Attention is listening with the ears, eyes, and heart.

Laura: Another thought with that is—not all of us have smart alert kids, but some of us do—so for us to say, “All right, go put your pajamas in the laundry.” As I’m telling my child to do that, they’ll say, “Yes, ma’am, I understand.” But I didn’t say when to do it. So I might need to clarify that, “I want you to go do this right now,” or “before you go play with the toy”—clarifying when I expect it to be done. Because they might come back and say, “Well, I was planning on putting the pajamas in the hamper, but I was going to do it after dinner.” Not that they shouldn’t just obey immediately and with a happy heart, but every once in a while we have that smart alert kid who’s going to see the loopholes in the instruction. So even being more specific: when you expect it.

Sonya: That could be very helpful. On the flip side, however, you cannot think of every potential loophole they might come up with. So we might need to, at some point, have a little heart-to-heart on Attention. I love the definition: Attention is listening with the ears, eyes, and heart. “What do you think I’m telling you?”

Laura: Yeah, “read between the lines here.”

Sonya: Yes, “You know me. What do you think my intent is here? What’s the end goal I have in mind?” A lot of that is your whole relationship with your child, keeping your hearts turned toward each other. It’s an ongoing process.

Laura: But it could also be one of those situations where you may say, “Go put your pajamas in the hamper.” And they’ll say, “Yes, ma’am,” and then they may say, “What did you say to do, again?” Obviously, all kids struggle with the distractions. So getting back to the question of How do I not repeat the instruction to begin with?, I have found that sometimes it works well to say, “Well, what did I tell you?” and put that responsibility back on them to go back in their mind to what I had originally said, versus the temptation just to repeat it. Repeating is the quick, easy answer. We need to cultivate the habit in ourselves to put that responsibility back on them: “I know you heard what I said. You were looking at me. You said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ So think hard about what I told you to do.”

Sometimes it works well to say, “Well, what did I tell you?” and put that responsibility back on them to go back in their mind to what I had originally said, versus the temptation just to repeat it.

Sonya: (It makes me think of Winnie the Pooh: Which part did you get the fluff in your ear?) “Which did you not hear?” And you might even say, “Tell me what you do remember? Which part do you remember?” Just to help them draw it out. I think another helpful thing to motivate them to pay full attention, or better attention, is to have consequences ready to go. Consequences are so hard to have specific and powerful in the moment. I get requests all the time for, “Can you just give me a list of consequences?” And I can’t, because it depends on the situation, the background. Is this a one time occurrence or is this a perpetual thing? Is this a personality? Does the child have auditory processing issues? There are so many factors. But mamas, I think, are in a unique position to understand their children better than anybody else. So I think they can find those consequences if they stop and reflect, and think about it ahead of time and have a few in their tool belts.

Laura: Right. Natural consequences are usually there. It’s just us understanding . . . well, in the original question, the child got distracted by a toy along the way. So the natural consequence would be probably to take that toy away or to not let them have the toy until their responsibility is done. So the natural consequences are usually there, but like you said, it helps to have a few that are on hand. For instance, maybe, “You didn’t obey this time. And you know what I expect of you. I told you, and you chose not to do it, so that means a 30-minute earlier bedtime.” Or trash duty this week—

Sonya: Extra chores.

Laura: Especially, when they’re old enough to understand that they made a choice not to obey when they did hear it.

Sonya: Or if the child has gotten distracted, and you walk across the room, and she’s playing with a toy, you can take the toy. But rather than saying, “I told you to . . . ,”—that’s the repeat part we want to avoid—take the toy and say, “You have not done what I told you to do.” That’s it. And then you wait.

Laura: And then you wait.

Sonya: And you wait. And you pray a lot while you’re standing there too. Another mom that I read recently mentioned an interesting consequence that she does. It’s kind of a multi-use consequence. If she gives the child a task to do, and they get distracted and don’t do it, they have to come back and do the task twice. So in the pajama instance, if you find the daughter there, you would take the toy, and say, “You did not do what I told you to do. Let’s go do it together.” You both go, and she puts the pajamas in the hamper. Then you take them back out, take them back to the kitchen where you started from, put them down, and say, “Okay, let’s do it one more time, start to finish.” Just to practice doing it correctly.

Laura: I think that’s a great idea.

Sonya: Might be powerful.

Laura: Especially if you have younger children with whom you’re trying to form that habit of listening, and the habit for yourself not to repeat. Hands on, it is so practical in that way. I had an instance this week. It wasn’t only the not repeating, but it was something one of my daughters was already trained to do. For example, I asked her to dust the living room. That’s something we’ve practiced; she has grown up dusting the living room. It’s nothing new that I’ve asked her to conquer. But the heart of it was the integrity of doing the job well and doing it without me having to repeat myself, or repeat the instructions, because she knows; she’s an older. Well, it so happened that I noticed this big streak along one of the pieces of furniture that was very obvious. I could have written my name in the dust, unfortunately (good house cleaning here). So I asked her, “Did you dust that piece of furniture?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said,—well, I provoked her first of all, which took repentance on my part—I said, “I know you didn’t do it, because I can still see the dust.” So it was a learning lesson for both of us: our discussing what she missed in the instruction, and her understanding that, “Okay, mom told me to do something. I listened, I heard it, I’m acting it out. But I didn’t do it thoroughly.”

Sonya: Yes, that’s tougher.

Laura: And so as the kids get older, and we struggle with the repeating and the instructions, it’s almost like there’s an added component of . . . like you said with your definition of attention.

Sonya: Listening with the ears, eyes, and heart.

Laura: Now I’m on the heart side of things. For the younger kids, when you give instructions, they can hear it and they can do it. And they’re like, “Yes, I conquered it.” But it’s more out of loyalty and respect to you as their authority figure versus as the children become older and really develop their own personalities and who they are as young people. That’s really where I have seen the heart issue come into play. She did the job; it was dusted. But it wasn’t that integrity component that we’ve really been working on; that’s been one of our habits lately. I want her to do what’s right when nobody’s watching. And to dust every component of what was expected of her was part of that. So, I know our question is about the habit of repeating—not repeating ourselves and our children to do what we say—but that’s multi-layered really.

Sonya: Yes, it is.

Laura: I’m in the phase of life right now where the heart is my concern and not just the conformity of the outward. And with the younger ones, it’s easy to make that happen because they’re ready and willing, most of the time (besides when they throw the fits on the ground).

Sonya: Just that little part of it, yeah.

Laura: They’re happy to please you; they want to please you, especially those preschool years and younger six-, seven-, eight-year-olds. But when you start getting a little feedback, and they have this inner war with themselves, almost of, “Okay, I’ve been trained, I know what’s expected of me.” But then there’s this fight of selfishness to want to do it their own way, or “Hmm, I wonder if I do this, what kind of reaction I’ll get from mom today.”

Sonya: Or as they’re getting older, they’re starting to view it like we do sometimes as mamas: “This is a never-ending thing. I’ll do it today, but I’m just going to have to do it again next time.” And so they might be thinking it’s futile, in a sense.

Laura: Right. And it’s hard helping them navigate those emotions and those thoughts, and to counsel their hearts to where there is the right response, where they want to obey, and they want to do what’s right. And they don’t want to have to say, “What did you say?” We want to benefit from the fruits of all those years of labor; and yet it’s still a struggle for them, a struggle for me. We expect these things of our children, but how do we change it in our own life?

Sonya: Yes, what if we have trouble paying attention ourselves? That was another part of the question.

Laura: So how would you answer that?

Sonya: I think it’s going to take small steps. But number one, we don’t just throw up our hands and say, “Well, that’s just the way I am, and I can’t improve.” Charlotte Mason talked about “It’s pleasant to know that even in mature life, we can . . .” (now I’m paraphrasing) form new habits with a “little persistent effort.” Yeah, a lot of persistent effort.

Laura: Just a little.

Sonya: I think one thing that can help adults, especially, is to take it in tiny steps. So I’m going to pay full attention to this particular thing; or when my child is talking to me, I am going to set aside my phone or set aside the potato peeler or whatever we’re working on, and I’m going to look her right in the eye and give her my full attention. Just those little steps that we can keep working on in our own hearts and lives. In addition to that proactive, we can start examining our lives for areas that are sabotaging those efforts. If we’re continually doing social media all the time that starts a cycle in our brains that shortens our attention span, because we’re looking for notification dings, and boom! we’re there. And it’s taken our attention away from what we were working on. That as well as getting enough sleep. When you’re fatigued, it’s hard to pay full attention. Just the idea of using different parts of the brain as you go through your day. (So we don’t clean the whole house top to bottom in one fell swoop. We’re going to clean this, and then let’s go do something else for a while. You know what I’m talking about.) Those same principles that we talked about with teaching our children the habit of full attention, I think with a little reflection, we can tweak them and apply them to ourselves. And just remember it’s a process, you’re not going to just flip a switch and suddenly have full attention. We all struggle with it at different times of the day, let alone of our lives.

When my child is talking to me, I am going to set aside my phone or set aside the potato peeler or whatever we’re working on, and I’m going to look her right in the eye and give her my full attention.

Laura: I definitely think consistency on our part, to be a good example. Maybe working on even the habits that our children are struggling with, whether it’s a weakness of ourselves or not. This example of not repeating, which lends to full attention to a certain degree, unfortunately, that burden rests on our shoulders to really try to be a good example. Like you were saying, when our child needs our attention, to drop what we’re doing and give them our full attention as an example to them that they should do the same to us. So it just kind of goes hand in hand, which is a beautiful thing. And it shows you how the family works well together. You all make mistakes, and you all fall short. But you’re there to encourage and uplift and keep at it. And for this mama to feel like she sees a struggle in her children, and then yet to see their own struggle in her own life, that humility is such a beautiful thing, because you’re never going to improve if you don’t admit the problem and you don’t get on the same page together as a family, which goes back to how important habits are, and to do them as a family and not expect everything to be perfect all at once.

Sonya: Charlotte talked a lot about mental sympathy. That when you are in the same boat, you’re not going to come down with a sledgehammer on your child. You’re going to understand how hard it is for that child too. Doesn’t mean you’re going to excuse it; doesn’t mean you’re going to just say, “Well, we’re not going to work on that.” But you can empathize with them. I thought of one more way we can be a model, and I hesitate even to bring this up—

Laura: I’m ready.

Sonya: But it’s conviction time. How many times yesterday did my husband say something to me, and I said, “What?” That just came to my mind. Now, I could play the card of “I’m getting older and it’s getting harder to hear things,” but no, we need to watch that aspect too. It’s not just with our children, it’s with other people in general.

Laura: People around us. It’s all good.

Sonya: Yes. Good words.

How about you? Do you have more tips and comments to help with teaching our children to pay full attention and not repeating ourselves? Leave them in the comments. We’d love to hear them!


  1. This was helpful! A gentle push 🙂
    In regards to the child who does it but not well, I keep the term “do-overs” in mind. No sermon, no repetition of instructions, it’s just a do-it-over-again. This has been so helpful in the kitchen, with Littles, with Older kids, even at school when I taught (and kids ran down the hall—do it over, walking this time). It gets rid of a lot of discussion and helps firm the right habit.

  2. The book Have a New Kid by Friday (Kevin Leman) has some great ideas to help with natural consequences and not repeating ourselves! This book helped me implement these ideas so much better!

    • Oh mommas thank you. I didn’t know how blessed I would be hearing those few honest moments of conviction and repentance. I want to pick those elements and explore them further. Having a hard time with this sinful mouth and my fierce 9yo.

  3. I have four kids, two of them on the autism spectrum. We’ve been blessed with years of high-quality Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. One thing I’ve learned from these therapists, is hand-over-hand prompting. If I ask my child to put his shoes in the closet, and he doesnt immediately obey, then I have this “trick” in my back pocket. Instead of repeating myself, I calmly (no emotion on my face) and silently take his hand and guide it to the shoes. If necessary, I move his whole body too. We pick up the shoes and walk together to put them away. It takes away his independence, which he Does Not like. It only takes a few times before he’s jumping to complete the task before I have a chance to “help” him. It seems so simple, but I was blown away by how quickly this works! Another aspect to it is to be sure you give commands that are direct and possible to prompt. For instance, don’t say “Will you please put your shoes away?” because he could say “No” and you’d have to honor that answer (in a therapy setting). Also, if the child is jumping on the couch, dont say, “Stop jumping” because you can’t prompt that command. Instead, say, “Sit down” because if he doesn’t, you can go over to him and calmly and silently (and gently) sit his body down.

  4. Any suggestions on getting kids in the habit of teeth brushing? We do other things in the morning but the basic morning routine/habit I’m trying to set is to 1. eat breakfast 2. take care of food/dishes 3. brush teeth. I say things like “What’s next?” to give the hint and not actually say “ok, it’s time to brush your teeth”. Or I say…what did you just finish doing? but I feel like I shouldn’t be asking these types of questions…am I doing it wrong or does it just take a long time? What other techniques or questions should I be using/asking? Thanks!

    • Habits can take a long while to establish. We always want to focus on 1 habit at a time. Ideally start focusing on the children taking taking care of the food/dishes first. When that becomes habit/routine, then focus on making the next step a habit. It is ok to say, “Alright. It is time to go brush our teeth.” You can say this 1x every morning for a while (days, a week?). It will slowly become habit/routine and you eventually will not need to remind the children.
      You didn’t mention the ages of your children but I have found with my younger boys (6 and under) having a chore chart on the wall for each of them has helped. They know in the morning they have specific things to do and can go to the chart and visually see (daily) what they must do. This gives me time to do other necessary tasks and it gives them a sense of independence. I don’t require each task to be done in a specific order, just completed.

Comments are closed.