How to Help your Child to Behave Out of Consideration Rather than Compliance

Picture this. Your 5 year-old son is playing with figurines in the lounge room. The toys are scattered over the floor. Your parents-in-law are coming over soon. You’d like the floor cleaned up.

Or this. Your teenager is going to a party, and you’ve offered to pick her up at 11pm, as you have to get up early the next day. She wants to stay until 12am.

In each case, you’d like your child to change their behaviour.

How will you get your child to change? What will you do to motivate him or her? And importantly, will you maintain a relationship of mutual respect?

Would you like your 5 year old to clean up the toys because you told him to (he’s worried he might get into trouble if he doesn’t) or because he understands you’re busy and have to get dinner ready? Would you like your teenager to agree to the 11 o’clock pick-up because she’s been threatened with grounding or because she understands how hard it is for you not to sleep and that she’s pleased to at least be going to the party for several hours?

Two drivers for children to do as we ask could be either:

(1) Consideration for the parent (or another person) or
(2) Compliance.

Which motivator would you like to see influencing your child’s behaviour?


Compliance means “to act in accordance with a wish or command; to be agreeable, to oblige or obey; unworthy or excessive acquiescence” (Oxford dictionary).

When children comply – do what we want them to do – there is an implied use of power, of force. Compliant children are obedient children. We ensure they obey because we can either punish them or reward them. When we ask for obedience, aren’t we are saying that the needs of our child are unimportant – that their needs are subservient to an adult’s?


“What are you talking about?” you might be saying. “Don’t we want our children to be compliant?”

Well – as parents, we like to have our needs met. We like to eat at the table without arguing; we like to relax at night after our children are asleep; we like to get to work on time after leaving the house on time. I think the key is: how do we get our children to help us meet our needs? Do we want them to comply with our requests or to act out of consideration because they care and because they know we care? As Alfie Kohn (author, Unconditional Parenting) describes – do we do things to our child (compliance), or with our child (consideration)?

Compliance Comes at a Cost to the Child:

How often do we hear adults being described as ‘compliant’? Rarely. When we do, there are images of power, of obedience, of inferiority. Reward and punishment. “You must comply with company rules or you will lose your job”. What happens if the company rules are discriminatory? If you complain because you want to support a co-worker, you risk losing your job. “You must comply with road rules or you will be fined”. Wouldn’t it be better to drive at the speed limit because it’s the right thing to do, because you don’t want to hurt anyone, rather than fear of a fine?

I recall my horror when a psychologist talked of parents as being ‘non compliant’ when they did not do their homework between therapy sessions. Really? Personally, if I were described as ‘non compliant’ I’d bristle. I’d fight right back. I’d feel put down, unequal, and that my needs were not as important as another person’s. I’d sack the therapist! Will our children’s reactions be any different?

This can be a difficult concept for us, as parents. We’re trying our best to bring up ‘good’ children because isn’t that what our society expects? There is (often unintended) pressure and judgement from our parents, our friends, when they say our child is being “good”. However, I think that ‘good’ in this case equates to ‘compliant’.

Compliance infers the person is ‘obedient’. Obedience occurs at the expense of getting their own needs met.

When children are taught (and therefore think) that their needs are unimportant, they don’t learn to stand up for themselves, to assert themselves. And this can cause problems for a child. They may be bullied or lose confidence. At the extreme end of the compliance spectrum, obedient children may be at risk (according to respected Emeritus Professor, Freda Briggs) of being abused. When an adult tells them to keep a secret, they will keep the secret – even if there is a threat to their own safety. And of course, compliant, obedient children may grow into compliant, obedient adults.

Dr. Thomas Gordon in his book Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) discusses the effects of parents using power over their children to get their needs met. He describes power as the ability to administer a reward or a punishment. A child that changes their behaviour because of hope for a reward or fear of a punishment is compliant. And who are they considering? They are considering only themselves. Will I get a reward or avoid a punishment?


‘Considerate’ means thoughtfulness and sensitivity towards others. I would add that consideration also includes thoughtfulness and sensitivity towards the self.

When children change behaviour out of consideration, they take into account the needs of the other person (such as Mum or Dad), AND their own needs. Changing behaviour out of consideration means considering the needs of BOTH the parent and child.

In this way, children learn that other people have needs, and these needs are important. They also know that their needs are important and not subservient to parents’ needs. When children change their behaviour out of consideration, they are consciously putting their own needs last. A considerate change in behaviour is a voluntary change. There is no force involved, no power.

Changing behaviour out of consideration is helpful for parents, empowering for children, and positive for the relationship.

child behavior listening i-messages parenting skillsHow do children learn to consider others?

A respectful approach to parent communication skills, such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), will help our children learn to change their behaviour out of consideration. Here are six skills and attitudes that will help.

1. Model consideration to children by taking them seriously.

– When you take someone seriously, you will be less likely to use power over her or him.

2. Remember that children do not misbehave. They behave to meet a need.

– Problems happen when our children’s needs interfere with us meeting our needs.

3. Listen to children.

Active Listening shows our children that we are considering them and taking them seriously.

– Modelling consideration of our children’s needs through Active Listening encourages our children to consider us when our needs are not met.

4. Use three part I-Messages.

– This is an essential skill in terms of helping our children learn how to consider others. A three part I-message looks something like this: “when . . .(describe child’s behaviour) I feel . . .(a feeling word) because . . . (describe how you, or another person, have been affected) “.

– An I-Message comes across as an appeal for help, allowing a child to consider both their parent’s needs and their own needs.

– By including the cost to the parent (such as time or effort) a child can consider what they need to do to help their parent out of a predicament.

5. Shift gears.

– Listening to our children if they feel defensive models our consideration for them. They are then more likely to change because they feel heard and understood.

6. Solve conflict with no-lose conflict resolution. AVOID reward and punishment.

No-lose conflict resolution ensures that everyone’s needs are heard

– Avoiding rewards and punishment means avoiding the use of parent power which can lead to compliant children.

Children who experience this style of parenting approach learn to empathise with and care for others – their friends, their siblings, their teachers. They learn the skills of respectful communication and to be thoughtful citizens of a wider world.

Inevitably, there will be times when we are annoyed, frustrated or concerned by our children’s behaviour. Helping our children to change their behaviour through consideration rather than compliance will help us remain connected, our children to develop self-worth, and our relationship to flourish.

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