Here’s What You Should Say to Your Kid Instead of ‘Sit Still,’ According to a Clinical Psychologist

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Kids have the remarkable ability—nay, primal urge—to remain in a constant state of motion. As such, your energetic child might feel inclined to wiggle, squirm, hop on one foot and do the hokey-pokey during a haircut, at a restaurant or—heaven forbid—while attending a funeral. And that is when you clench your jaw and hiss ‘sit still,’ right? Well, there’s a strong chance you borrowed this one from your own parents’ playbook, but as it turns out, it might not actually be the best approach. In fact, frustrated parents everywhere confirm that commanding a kid to sit still is completely ineffective, and clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook agrees. Read on for the expert’s explanation of why it won’t work, and what you can say instead.

The Problem with ‘Sit Still’

A generic phrase like “sit still” might work initially, but once you start saying it on repeat, the command will lose its effectiveness and kids will stop listening—namely because “the words aren’t meaningful to them and it feels like control,” says Dr. Cook. Although it’s very clear to you (and probably every other adult in the vicinity) that your child’s behavior needs modifying, Dr. Cook tells us that the offending party (i.e., your offspring) simply “doesn’t have the cognitive ability to see the ‘big picture’ and understand the ‘why.’” And that’s a problem, friends.

Of course, authoritarian instincts tend to surface when the pressure is on and your kid is embarrassing you (we get it). Alas, children don’t respond all that well to controlling parents—and that’s exactly how you come across when you issue commands without helping them understand your reasoning. In other words, if you want to be taken seriously, you’ve got some explaining to do. Per Dr. Cook, “explaining to your children ‘why’ helps them understand how their actions influence others and themselves in ways they may have not perceived.” Children are also much more likely to listen to explanations that are specific to the circumstance, as opposed to generic, blanket statements issued from on high.

What to Say Instead

Fear not: you don’t have to prepare a thesis every time you need your kid to keep his butt in a chair. In fact, it works much better if you don’t wax on for too long. The expert suggests you keep it succinct with something like, “It’s important that we keep our bodies still when we are at the doctor because we want to make sure they don’t miss anything during the exam.”

It’s also worth noting that the command-explanation combo is often more effective when it occurs before the behavior even starts. For example, you might give a quick pep talk that goes something like this: “When we are at church, it’s important we practice not jumping up and down during the service. We will sit at the back of the church in case you have a few hiccups, so we don’t distract others. I know it’s tough, but you can do this.” The bottom line? Just bust out those communication skills and cooperation will (hopefully) follow suit.

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Emma Singer

Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...
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