Consideration or Obedience: Motivating Children to Change their Behaviour

Picture this.  You are the room leader in an early childhood service, and trying to read to your group of children. Most are interested, but one (who is normally happy to listen) is excitedly trying to get the attention of a friend.  The noise interferes with the rest of the group being able to hear the story.

If your big-picture aim is to maintain a relationship of mutual respect, how will you motivate her to change her behaviour?

Would you like the young girl in your room to stop talking because of a fear of being put in time-out; or because she can see that the other children are sad and frustrated when they can’t hear the story, and she’s concerned about her friends being sad?

In my opinion, two drivers for children to do as we ask could be either:

  • Consideration for another person, including a parent, friend, carer, sibling.; or
  • Compliance, obedience

Consideration comes from within the child (intrinsic motivation), while obedience is a result of factors from outside the child, usually rewards or punishment (extrinsic motivation).

Which motivator would you like to see influencing a 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).

The words ‘compliant’ and ‘obedient’ are generally only applied to children – the ‘good child’. Describing adults as obedient conjures images of power, of inferiority. For example, would you call your partner compliant, or your co-worker obedient?

How do we gain compliance from children?

In his book Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), Thomas Gordon defines compliance, or obedience as ‘adult power’.  Power is the ability to administer either a punishment, or a reward. This is how we get our children to obey us.  Compliance imposes external discipline.

A child that changes his or her behaviour because of expectation of a reward, or fear of a punishment, is obedient.

Our aim is to meet our needs.

When we ask for obedience, we are really seeking to have our needs met.  As a parent, we like to relax at night after our children are asleep; or to get to work on time.  As an educator, we like to see children working together without fighting; or to have periods of quiet in the room.

I think the key is: how do we help children to meet our needs, or the needs of others, while maintaining their own self-respect?  Do we want them to comply with our requests because they are afraid of the consequences; or to act out of consideration because they care about others, and because they know we care about them?

When a child changes their behaviour because of obedience, they are thinking only of themselves. Will I get a reward, or how can I avoid a punishment?

Compliance comes at a Cost to the Child.

Obedience and compliance occur at the expense of a child getting their own needs met.

When children are taught that their needs are unimportant, they don’t learn to stand up for themselves.  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.


When children change behaviour out of consideration, they take into account the needs of another person (such as their carer, parent or friend), AND their own needs. A considerate change in behaviour is a voluntary change, where children consciously put their own needs last.

Children that modify their actions because of concern for others are exercising inner discipline.


At times, we might want children to change their behaviour quickly, to keep them safe.  They are more likely to listen, oblige, and learn for the future, if we have a relationship of respect, than one based on power.

How do children learn to consider others?

A respectful approach to communication, such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), will assist our children to change their behaviour out of consideration.  Here are five skills and attitudes that will help, from very young children upwards.

  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.
  1. 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.
  • Looking at our assumptions about what leads to a child’s behaviour will help us stop blaming children.
  1. 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.
  1. 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, has been affected) “.
  • An I-Message comes across as an appeal for help, allowing a child to take into account both their parent or carer’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.
  1. AVOID reward and punishment. Solve conflict with no-lose conflict resolution.
  • 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.

Inevitably, there will be times when we are annoyed, frustrated or concerned by children’s behaviour. Helping children to change their behaviour through consideration, rather than compliance, will help us remain connected, our children to develop inner discipline and self-worth, and our relationship to flourish. Children will learn to care for others – their friends, their siblings, their teachers – and to be thoughtful citizens of a wider world.

This article was originally published for parents on Gordon Training International.  Read the original article here. 

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

Larissa Dann

Larissa is a parent who, many years ago, attended a parenting course. The skills and approach of that program influenced her life so profoundly that she became a parent educator. She is now an experienced instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), having taught over 1000 people, including parents, teachers and practitioners. Larissa uses the skills everyday, endeavouring to ‘practice what she preaches’. She is an accredited P.E.T. facilitator, group leader, and counsellor. She feels privileged each time she teaches, as she observes the communication skills empower children, parents and carers in a relationship of respect. Larissa is now enjoying dabbling in the area of written reflections, otherwise known as blogs.

One thought on “Consideration or Obedience: Motivating Children to Change their Behaviour”

    Ashlea Earl says:

    Thanks Larissa, for sharing such an informative article. I do face difficulties with behavior of my son. I teach him manners sometimes he acts like a good boy, but at some he does not.

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