Repeat After Me: a Lesson from Obi-Wan

Do you remember the first time you watched Star Wars? One of the coolest scenes for me, as a kid, is when Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi are tooling around Mos Eisley with R2-D2 and C3PO in the back of Luke's landspeeder, and some Imperial Stormtroopers stop to question them. "These aren't the droids you're looking for" says Kenobi, waving his hand in a mystical way, prompting the guard to repeat after him, "These aren't the droids we're looking for", believing it himself.

Jedi Mind Tricks or useful parenting tool?

Now, I don't have the Force within me enough to do that sort of trick, but there's something to having your kid repeat what you say, especially when their little heads are off somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.

Some kids are a bit dreamy, and when we tell them something-Poof!- off it goes, into the ether. Some kids fall into a habit of having a hard time attending immediately to directions; once they know they've got our attention (we are looking at them, we just requested they do something), they distract us with what they want to show us. I'm not saying that these bids for attention are wrong, but there are times that "first things, first" is necessary. Show me how cute you are doing somersaults after you've gone potty. I'd love to hear your story about the dinosaurs, and right now, we need to get our shoes on, and I know you can't talk to me and do that at the same time, so shoes first.

What's a mom to do? Our kids love us, want to engage us, and have completely different agendas than we have, say more than 75% of the time or so. Let's face it-- I don't want to put my kid in time out for not listening the first time, and likely, neither do you. It's almost an impairment, trying to correct their 'not listening' retroactively. And sometimes, we just don't have the time.

All this in mind, I've started having Kiddo repeat me, and this is working like a charm. Dare I say, like a Jedi Mind Trick. It's easy. I make sure that I engage him first, get his attention by attending to what he's doing or thinking about, then precede my request with "You say:" and then give the request in their first-person wording. This is how it looks at our house:

Mama: "Kiddo, you have all of your marbles in the bowl. What's going on with them?"

Kiddo: "I'm giving my dinosaurs some food. The marbles are the food. They like it."

Mama: "Wow! They have a lot of food!" (interest having been shown, mutual attention toward each other) "It's time to go to the store. Would you like to pick out a dino buddy to go to the store?"
(transitioning technique here, acknowledging his play and allowing him to continue it in a different setting.)

Kiddo: "Yes. I'll bring parasauralophus."

Mama: "Great. Let's put him right here. Now you say to me: 'It's time to put on my shoes.'"

Kiddo: "It's time to put on my shoes."

Mama: "'I will put them on right now.'"

Kiddo: "I will put them on right now."

Mama: "Great. Let's get those shoes on!"

Now, while it seems cookie-cutter easy, please understand that the transition technique of extending his activity played an equal role in his willingness to cooperate. I'm being respectful of what he's intellectually engaged in. This is relatively easy to do with a little imagination, by the way, while kids are young and while they are involved in free play; children watching tv or playing games on the computer or board games with each other will require more parental help to transition away from because their attention is on something fixed, less portable. You will need to show the attention, help them finish, and only after that try the 'repeat after me' technique.

It helps to keep directions in the affirmative, and much like parenting our youngest, we want to use positive language whenever we can, so as not to reinforce the negative, because kids still mostly hear the end of what we say to them. "Repeat after me" can be helpful in refocusing a child whose actions need to change. Here are a few examples.

If the child is running around the room like a crazy person:
Not: "I will not run around the room like a crazy person."
Instead: "I will use my walking feet in the house."

If the child is taking a toy from a friend:
Not: "I will not take the toy away from him."
Instead, use: "I will find another toy now. I will have a turn when he's done."

If the child is yelling:
Not:  "I will not yell and make mommy's ears hurt."
Instead, try: "I can go in my room to yell. I can use a quiet voice with Mama."

This also works well for precorrecting too. At the library: "I will use my whisper voice." At the store: "I will hold your hand or I can ride in the cart/stroller." This may help the child internalize expectations in a positive way.

Just in case some of this sounds suspiciously familiar, remember that many counselors, therapists and self-help books suggest positive affirmations because, truly, they do work if practiced regularly. Repeating positive directions is exactly the same thing, only we aren't standing in the mirror like Stuart Smalley saying: "Because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!" We're saying: "It's time to get my coat on now."

Overall, this is just one more tool in the parenting toolbox, nonetheless, it is a pretty friendly one and I like those best. Of course, if you have a kid heading for a tantrum, or if you've been experiencing a spate of power struggles, give it a few tries and then reevaluate if this is working. Some kids who are in a period of digging their heels in aren't going to be be so easily led, and may consciously work not to internalize your phrasing, but to contradict it. So, like many of the parenting tools, this won't be successful 100% of the time. However, I've found it's been working really well for us over the last few days and wanted to share while it was on my mind. We all can use a little reminding of what's in the 'toolbox', and please, feel free to share any of your favorite friendly techniques in the comments. I like to learn from you readers, too!


Amanda said…
Teaching good thought-process & habit is such an important part in parenting, I'm glad you're mentioning this.

There is something so important about learning what we "ought" to do and learning to listen to the "ought"....and what you're doing with kiddo does just that. Mom asks me to get my shoes on and I ought to therefore I will.

I use repeating a lot for modeling HOW to say things to others a lot too. "Can you help me?" can be repeated by the child who is tossing his shoe across the room in frustration....this is something we use SO much. This is a different problem but nonetheless modeling.

On a personal note, you are such a cool mom. I'm so dang lucky to have you as my sister. I wonder how much better of a parent I am because of your insight and ideas? I suppose we'll never know.

I sure like you. Cheesy, sorry.
Ah, Amanda, bring on the cheese. Gouda, gruyere, even Velveeta... I feel the same way about you too.

Love that word, "ought". Just about as much as I love "meant". (Semantics here, but there's something about saying that an object "is/is not meant for something" that helps in a moment of correction. Stating intended purpose.)

That part about "how" we say things is important too. So much of my inclination to want to do something for someone else begins with their attitude toward me.

Uber-cool yourself. Thanks for the feedback and your suggestions. And your Amanda-MamaBrain too. I dig your brain completely.

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