Achieving first-time obedience

In my last post, I described what first-time obedience looks like. Now we’ll get into the details of how you can help your child obey the first time. It’s not easy but so worth it!

Lay the groundwork. It’s all about your tone.
Before you start requiring first-time obedience, you need to ensure your own attitude is in the right place. For those of you unsure of your ability to command authority, reach down within yourself and find your courage. Do not fear your child. Do not let him make the choices for the family. If you have read one or two of the Ezzo books, you are no stranger to the idea that the marriage takes priority in the family. Your child is a welcome member of the family but is not the center of it. Let that attitude carry you through your daily interactions with your child.

Some of you may have a strong handle on your authority but might take it too far. Don’t expect that he will disobey or he will. Don’t think that having authority over your child means that he’ll comply with unreasonable expectations when he’s tired and hungry. Don’t equate authority with anger and power. We want wise parenting, not power parenting.

If you have found the right attitude, you are likely at a place where you want to set your child up to succeed but will maintain a matter-of-fact tone if he doesn’t. When your child disobeys, you don’t accept it or get angry. You say to him, “Oops, I see you’ve made the wrong choice. Too bad. Here is what your consequence will be.”

Be consistent!

One of the most important things you need to require of yourself is consistency. If you want first-time obedience from your child, you must be 100% consistent. If you slip, he will too. But if you require it, he will meet your expectation. Your child will only rise to the expectation you set for him. Set the bar high but keep in mind you need to do the work to help him get there.

Get your “yes, mommy” and eye contact
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your child respond to the call of his name with a “yes, mommy” and eye contact. Before you give any task, especially one that he won’t want to do, you need to get his attention and know that he is listening. Maintaining eye contact while you give the instruction is key. Refer back to these posts for more.

Don’t repeat yourself
One sure-fire way to not get first-time obedience is to repeat yourself. How can he achieve first-time obedience if you’ve already given your instruction 5 times? Give him your instruction clearly and while maintaining eye contact and you have no excuse to repeat yourself. You know he has heard you loud and clear.

So what do you do if your child doesn’t respond after you’ve given your one instruction? Wait. Don’t wait 20 minutes, but do give him a chance to comply. If he still doesn’t respond, don’t say another word. Simply take him by the hand and physically help him complete the task. If you’ve asked him to put his Legos away and he ignores you, take his hand and bring him over to the Legos. Then take his hands in your own and start picking them up together. Be sure to do this with a very calm demeanor or he will strongly resist you.

After you have completed the task together, explain to him that you had to help him this time and that next time, you want him to obey you the first time you ask him to do something. After you have given it a few days of helping him obey you, move on to expecting him to obey you on his own. If he chooses not to, then you move on to your consequence.

Decide ahead of time what your consequences will be
Spend some time with your spouse thinking through your child’s most troublesome behaviors. Then decide on a logical or natural consequence for each of those behaviors. Write them down and post them in the kitchen so you can refer to them often. Perhaps picking up his toys is where he struggles the most. You might decide to take those toys away for a day. Let the punishment fit the crime, and make sure your consequences are ones that you can follow through on, even at your own weakest moments.

The key here is that you plan ahead so that when you’re faced with disobedience, you’re not scrambling to come up with a consequence. You want to respond swiftly, especially as you’re just beginning. Refer to my post on intentional parenting for more.

Do non-conflict training
Whether he’s 2 or 12, take the time to explain to him your new standard of obedience. He needs to know that you are changing the rules of the game and that you will be giving consequences the first time he disobeys. Clearly explain to him that you expect him to respond to your instructions the first time you give them. Be specific. Tell him that if he runs away from you at the park, you will go home the first time. Tell him that if he speaks to you with disrespect just one time, he will lose his TV privileges. Remind him often, several times a day every day.

Follow through
This is where you make or break the deal. You can do all of the work I describe above, but if you don’t follow through when your child disobeys the first time, all of your work will be for nothing. Not only will it have been a waste of time, but now your child won’t believe you when you say you will require first-time obedience. If your child disobeys just one time, issue the consequence, no questions asked. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t threaten. Don’t get angry. Keep a calm demeanor and follow through.

Now, don’t kick yourself if you slip once or twice. You are both acquiring a new skill, but do make it a priority. Even set aside a few days when you can stay home and work on it.

Set your child up for success
You want your child to achieve first-time obedience, right? So set him up to succeed. Don’t start your work on first-time obedience by asking your 4-year-old to mow the lawn. Take baby steps. Start by giving him a task you know he’ll do willingly. If he does it the first time, praise him! Expect that he will succeed. Make it so that he wants to give you first-time obedience. Then once he is doing well with simple tasks, move on to more difficult ones.

Be fair
You cannot expect your child to give you first-time obedience if you haven’t done all your work first. You can’t issue a consequence the first time if you haven’t told him what you expect. For all he knows, you’ll repeat yourself 20 times like you usually do. And consider context. Don’t start expecting first-time obedience when your fuse is short and your child is tired and hungry.

Require a happy heart

I started this post by asking you to work on your own attitude, and I’ll end by saying you need to ensure your child has the right attitude as well. A big component of first-time obedience is doing it with an attitude of submission. You might want to spend a week or two working on the mechanics of first-time obedience before you move on to changing his attitude. But once you are ready to do so, explain to him at a time of non-conflict, what you expect of him. Then if he gives you first-time obedience but sulks off after complying or whines about doing the task, start requiring him to respond with a happy heart. One of the best ways to do so is requiring him to do the task over with a better attitude. If he needs a few minutes in isolation to find his happy heart, let him go to his room and then come back to you when he’s ready to comply with a better attitude.

This was a long post full of weighty ideas. Refer back to it often. Good luck!


  1. Thank you so much for this post and for sending me here (from growing kids on yahoo). I am so frustrated with my 2 1/2 year old and first-time obedience. I need to hear/read this post over and over. My biggest problem is keeping my cool. Maybe your suggestion of writing it down and having the plan will help me with that.

    Thanks again!

  2. I struggled with anger with my oldest when my youngest was a newborn and my husband was in Kuwait. Definitely a stressful time. But the Ezzo techniques have pulled me out of it. Take a look at this post on anger:

  3. What a great post. Great reminder about tone and anger. I have such a hard time keeping calm sometimes but you keep giving me great reminders.

    I am really struggling with this with my son (who seems to be getting crazier behavior wise every day). He is only 15 months and while I feel like I am being consistent 100% of the time, I usually make him do something rather than give him a consequence for something which I guess means I haven’t moved onto the second step of teaching fto. I guess it just seems like if I did this he would be in time out half of his life since, while he understands some natural consequences (like having his food taken away if he throws it), he doesn’t understand many other consequences or there aren’t very logical ones available (like when he touches something he isn’t supposed to or hits me etc). Obviously I need to do something though bc he often will keep doing something over and over again (like in your restaurant example) whether that means he does first time obedience then goes back to doing the no no again, or I ask him to do/not do something and he doesn’t comply so I make him do it and then the same goes on over and over again. Am I expecting too much to have fto at his age? Is it even possible MOST of the time at this age? Do I need to be doing some kind of discipline all day long to have results rather than just redirection? Or do I have to keep saying things over a hundred times a day until he gets a bit older?

    I had a question about your BE FAIR part. If your child is overtired for whatever reason and it really isn’t fair to expect much from them, how do you lower expectations without causing inconsitency?

    Thanks! Sorry so long!

  4. Rachel: “He is only 15 months and while I feel like I am being consistent 100% of the time, I usually make him do something rather than give him a consequence for something.”

    That is great that you are being so consistent. At 15 months, you should only expect FTO about 60% of the time. Your attitude should be that you’ll get it 100% of the time, but so you don’t lose your sanity, just know that it won’t happen. Redirection and helping him comply at this age are totally appropriate.

    Rachel: “I am really struggling with this with my son (who seems to be getting crazier behavior wise every day).”

    Think through your most troubling behaviors. Are there a few that keep cropping up and don’t change with the techniques you’ve been using? If so, then maybe you do need to change your tactic. If he is constantly hitting you or some other big offense like that, you do need to use your biggest level consequence, whatever that may be in your house. Be consistent with it and he won’t be in time out all day long. The first day or two might be rough, but after that the behavior should disappear. When Lucas was that age, he went through a hitting phase but it didn’t last long. It always happened when I was holding him and I would simply plop him down on the floor with a stern “do not hit mommy”, refusing to hold him if he treated me like that. He got the message and stopped hitting.

    Rachel: “Or do I have to keep saying things over a hundred times a day until he gets a bit older?”

    Do not repeat yourself. That is something you can start right now. Tell him once and if he doesn’t do it, help him. If it’s something you want him to stop doing, tell him once and then pick him up and redirect him.

    Rachel: “If your child is overtired for whatever reason and it really isn’t fair to expect much from them, how do you lower expectations without causing inconsistency?”

    This is all about choosing the right time to give him your instructions. You’re right. You don’t want to change things up day to day or ignore the behavior because the child is hungry or tired. This is where your schedule helps. If you know you’ll be eating lunch in 20 minutes and he always gets hungry around the same time, you won’t choose that moment to ask him to clean up his toys. You’re not being inconsistent. You’re just choosing a more appropriate time. Adjust your schedule to allow for these things. For a while there, I was having William clean up the playroom right before bed. Well, I realized that it was just a bad time since we were both tired. I decided to change our routine and have him clean up the playroom every day after breakfast before TV time. He was well-rested, well-fed and he had the incentive of watching TV. I didn’t have to stand over him and tell him over and over to clean up. He knew that if he didn’t then he couldn’t watch TV. And I knew that he would always clean up because he wanted to watch.

    I’m not sure I answered all your questions. Maybe if you gave some examples it would help.

  5. Thanks so much!

    What I meant by “saying something to him a hundred times a day” was that I tell him not to do it, redirect him/he stops doing it, and then he is doing it over again a minute later. Take standing up in the bath tub. Most of the time he has FTO when I ask him to sit down, but he is usually standing a minute later so I end up having to ask him to sit like 15 different times during one bath period. I guess my problem is trying to find tactics that work with him. This routes from me being inexperienced and him not caring much about most consequences, or he seems to care for a moment but then will continue with the offense over and over again still. So for the bath, if I take him out when he stands he doesn’t care. If I take away a toy when he throws it out, he has a mini fit for a minute but then doesn’t care and keeps throwing out toys. I’ve got a lot of figuring out to do and a lot to learn with my little guy!

  6. I have taken notes from your post–it is so helpful! Thank you. We’ve gotten a lot of things down, like “yes mommy” and obedience, but first time obedience? Oops. I am making the commitment to be 100% consistent teaching my almost-4-year-old this week (and beyond).

  7. I am having exactly the same problems that Rachel is having in this area. The difference is that my dd is 22mo. old. Should I be offering a consequence rather than helping her obey/redirecting for her age? And if so, should it be isolation? She does things that are difficult for me to think of a logical consequence for (grabs/touches something I’ve told her not to, doesn’t do something I’ve told her to until the 3rd time she’s asked, etc… ). They are small offenses, but basically boil down to disobedience.

  8. Hi Ashley,

    At 22 months, you are definitely working on first-time obedience but will likely not be there completely. The one thing the Ezzos say is to strive for 100% obedience, but only expect 50-60% depending on age. In some cases, redirecting and helping her obey is fine. As for her not responding until the third time you ask, be sure you are calling her name and getting a “yes mommy” and eye contact before you tell her what to do. I would even have some first-time obedience practice sessions. Make a game of it. Go to the other room and call her name. When she comes, make it fun and praise her big time. Find other times throughout your day to test her obedience. There doesn’t need to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason behind it. As with everything, we want to practice, practice, practice.

    Also evaluate her heart. If you got your “yes mommy” and eye contact and she still disobeys, then yes, isolate her. See my recent posts on timeouts. Do try to get creative with logical consequences. Say for example, she keeps touching your things, things she isn’t ever allowed to touch. Then maybe she loses the privilege of playing in that room. Say she throws her spoon on the floor while eating. She loses the privilege of feeding herself. Logical consequences can be very simple. Think through some of her misbehaviors and brainstorm with your spouse on some consequences you might try.

    Hope that helps. Good luck!

  9. Ok, just recently found this blog and it’s GREAT! I’ve been trying to work on FTO with my DD for a while but this helps break it out. She just turned 3 and it definitely doing lots of testing since this milestone! We’ve been practicing and she knows when I call her name to say “yes Mommy”. Sometimes she fights to look in my eyes so I hold her chin to do that. But what happens if I give the instruction and she says “no mommy”. I say “the only answer you can give me is yes mommy”. She’ll say “no mommy” and laugh, then I’ll say “you don’t have the freedom to say no. Say yes mommy”. So it might go on a few times. Is this wrong? I know FTO takes some training so is this to be expected at times? Or is this not to be accepted?
    Also, since she just turned 3 should my expectations be higher for her? What should the compliance % be at this age? I really think she knows a lot of what is right and wrong (vs her 19 month old sister).

    And lastly, I’m not 100% clear if you apply consequences only AFTER giving the instruction? For example, you said to apply consequences the first time she disobeys. So does that mean when she does something wrong even without you saying the instruction? For example, she knows it’s wrong to do X, so you don’t even say “don’t do X”, just apply the consequence when she does it? I’m not sure if I’m clear on that……if she knows something is wrong, it’s implied not to do it so you don’t have to state it first to apply the consequence, correct?
    I’m not a pushover and I really try to be consistent and apply logical consequences. But she’s just really testing her limits now and it’s rather frustrating. We just started having issues where she is moving from her timeout chair. I put her back and she laughs and kicks and treats it all like a big game. She will stay there as I’ll eventually just walk away and that works. But she never did that before. I’m not even sure how to handle that at this age. Some minor (like I tell her to not slam doors open and closed and she keeps doing it. Obviously I need to find something to treat that and I’m pondering that-any ideas?). But like this post says, in a way doesn’t FTO cover everything? But I guess you have to be good in applying logical and natural consequences to when you don’t get FTO. Then your FTO compliance rate should go up. But I really feel like I need to really stress this FTO with her and that will be the root of most issues.
    On an aside, do you notice that your son will periodically “retest” you from time to time? Like things are going well and all of a sudden he’ll start acting out more. I figure it is probably some developmental milestones as they grow and they have to keep seeing where their limits are? That’s my theory but I have no clue as she’s my first:)
    Thank you so much for your blog and any advice!

  10. Let me see if I can respond to all of your issues.

    She’ll say “no mommy” and laugh, then I’ll say “you don’t have the freedom to say no. Say yes mommy”. So it might go on a few times.

    If she’s laughing, she knows it’s wrong. I think you’re doing the right thing, but I think after the second “no mommy” I would correct her, probably with a timeout unless you can come up with a different logical consequence related to the situation. Actions speak louder than words.

    Also, since she just turned 3 should my expectations be higher for her? What should the compliance % be at this age?

    You are right to keep this in mind. I plan to do a post on it. But I don’t know the percentages off the top of my head. Look it up in the book.

    For example, you said to apply consequences the first time she disobeys. So does that mean when she does something wrong even without you saying the instruction?

    If it is something she knows (and you have no doubt she knows) that it’s wrong, then yes, you correct without reminding her. For example, when Lucas (age 2) throws his fork or food from the highchair, I will pick him up and tell him “no throwing food” in my stern mommy voice as I put him in timeout. If you’re not sure she knows, then remind her once.

    We just started having issues where she is moving from her timeout chair. I put her back and she laughs and kicks and treats it all like a big game. She will stay there as I’ll eventually just walk away and that works. But she never did that before. I’m not even sure how to handle that at this age.

    At this age with my older son, I started doing timeouts in our small bathroom, on the toilet (lid down) with the door closed. If she’s laughing and doing it over, it’s a game to her. You might even consider setting up the playpen and doing them there.

    Some minor (like I tell her to not slam doors open and closed and she keeps doing it.

    If you tell her not to do something (no matter how minor) and she keeps doing it, you need to discipline her. Disobedience is disobedience. With all the laughing and testing she’s doing, it sounds like you might need to improve your consistency.

    On an aside, do you notice that your son will periodically “retest” you from time to time?

    Yes! It’s perfectly normal. See this post on the ebb and flow of parenting.

    Hope this helps! Definitely keep going through old posts to make sure you get it all.

  11. Thank you so much. It does clear up a few things and I like the bathroom potty timeout spot idea. We have one downstairs that should work perfect. And I’ll use the playyard as my backup if needed. I think my problem is I have been giving a warning when she misbehaves. Things she knows she shouldn’t do (things like yelling at the table,etc…..) So at the first yell I’ll say “Next time you yell you won’t get your yogurt” -so that would be her consequence. And I definitely follow through with it. But I’m thinking upon rereading this post that that may be my issue with her. I should just correct that first yell with a consequence, correct? I think maybe I’ve been still “stuck” a bit in toddler mode but she just became a preschooler. So do you agree with my assessment? I need to just “step it up” and apply the consequence right away at this age. Am I understanding that right? If this is the crux of the matter I think I may have been misunderstanding it!

    I also have a 19 month old and she is still definitely in a different phase of training naturally. But I kind of think that is where some of the problems are coming from with my 3 YO. I have different level of expectations from the younger and I think my oldest thinks she can get away with the same things. For example, with some things I just ignore my 19 months’ behaviour. Like when it’s time to get shoes or coats on, she’ll go try to go running off like it’s a game,etc. I just calmly go and dress her and don’t engage with the behaviour. But obviously it would be different for a 3 YO. Does that make sense? If I correct my 3 YO for a behaviour and not my 19 month old, is that confusing for my 3 YO? But I don’t see how you could have the same level of expectations. But I think that is where most of the recent issues have come from. That and 2 days a week I have a sitter come in. She is nowhere near as firm as I. She tries to follow but has acknowledged she always was a “softie” so I think some of the issues is just my 3 YO testing my limits to see if it’s the same (and it’s definitely not). But I don’t see how that is really avoidable. I guess that is just life:)
    Thank you again so much!

  12. I’m having a problem right now with my 18 month old who refuses to keep his push toys on the driveway. He wants to go out onto the road (which isn’t a main road, really no traffic other than mail, etc., but I still don’t want him there). I call his name and tell him to come back. He turns around and looks at me, sometimes starts back, but then turns back and keeps going. I’ve tried making my request again, but it doesn’t do any good, so I’ve been picking up his toy and him, and bringing him inside immediately. It still isn’t working and this is going on a few days now. He isn’t talking yet, really, but I know he understands me as he is very smart and does a lot of things I tell him to do. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you so much.

  13. Maureen says:


    I would do exactly what you’re doing. Just be sure you act the first time he does it (or second, with a warning). Act swiftly and quickly. And I would tell him what you expect before you go outside. Maybe after you put his shoes on and he’s sitting still, get his eye contact and tell him that he must stay in the driveway and come to you when you call. Then when he disobeys and doesn’t turn around, scoop him up and bring him in. While you do that, tell him why you’re doing it. The other thing that might help is giving him a visual barrier. Show him where he must stop. I have used sidewalk chalk in the past for this. We live on a cul-de-sac so it’s usually fine if they’re in the road (with me) but when I can’t watch them as closely, I can’t have them go beyond the curve in the road. So I’ll draw a line that they can’t cross.

    One thing you might work on is getting him to come to you when you call his name. Does he do this when you’re at home? I imagine the temptation of walking down the road is big, so try it when the temptation isn’t as great. If he doesn’t come when you call, go get him and bring him to where you were when you called, explaining that he is to come to you when you call his name. This is the crux of first-time obedience and the more you practice, the better he will be (at home and outside).

    Does that help?

  14. Kristin says:

    I’m working on FTO with my kids (3 1/2 and 1 1/2). I have been telling them to essentially, “stop, look, listen” :) when I say their name. Should I be having them come to me? I just read that in your last response and wonder if I should be doing it.

  15. Maureen says:

    The Mom’s Notes say you are to have the child come to you when you call. The reason I recommended it for Erica is she seems to have one that wanders off. My guess is you are probably in the same room when you call their name (and they’re not walking away from you). If that’s the case and they give you eye contact, having them come to you may not be completely necessary. If they do “stop, look and listen” with an attitude of submission, then you are probably fine. If you ever notice a little rebellion in this regard, then start having them come to you.

  16. Hi, I just found this post. My daughter is 2 1/2 and really testing us right now. We have been looking for a plan for FTO. Our biggest problem is finding a consequence that is meaningful enough. She is very happy-go-lucky. She does not have tantrums, she just sometimes ignores our instructions (“Put on your shoes”, etc.). Time outs have not worked. She thinks they are a game. We also implement natural consequences, such as cleaning up a mess she made. She loves to feel helpful, so it’s not really a deterrent for making another mess. We have also been taking away her favorite toys, stuffed animals, and privileges for not complying. This weekend she lost her baby dolls, so she made a small baby out of play-doh and that seems to suit her just fine. She is great at making the most out of what’s around. I think it’s a great quality to have, but it’s baffling us as to what we can use as a meaningful consequence.

  17. jill vaderwal says:

    so – just read the e-book- great and practical on may levels but I was so disappointed when I got to page 91 and read “Remember, the focus of this ebook is first-time obedience. Sleeping, eating and potty training issues are beyond the scope of this book.” I have a 3 year old- fairly compliant, helpful and cooperative kid. (if he gets time out- he will go to his room on his own etc) but….eating, and staying in bed are the source of 97% of the source of struggles in our house….so how does FTO intersect with ….not eating? or staying in bed? Do I say “it is time to finish eating” and then just take his plate? he does set the table, always ask to be excused- but he have eaten nothing- at which point i him to eat a few bites and resistance/ avoidance ensues. resources? thoughts? thanks!

  18. jill vanderwal says:

    correct my last sentence
    Do I say “it is time to finish eating” and then just take his plate? He does set the table and always asks to be excused- but he may have eaten nothing, thus I ask him to eat a few bites and resistance/ avoidance ensues. resources? thoughts? thanks!

  19. Hi Jill,

    This is where logical and natural consequences, not FTO, come into play. You always need a combination of the three. Is he a picky eater? We have one rule about eating, and it’s that you have to take ONE “no thank you” bite. They can’t say “no thank you” without having tried it. If they take one bite, say no thank you, and ask to be excused, I remind them that this is the last food they will have before breakfast. That often strikes enough fear in them to eat more. If not, they won’t starve. Even if he is hungry in the morning, that’s his natural consequence of not eating. Remind him that he’s hungry because he didn’t eat his dinner and that maybe next time, he’ll eat more.

    Be sure you don’t give in by letting him have a snack later. And make sure you don’t let him have a snack too close to dinner. And if you’re that worried, you can give him your normal dinner and be sure to include at least one thing you know he’ll eat. So for example, he still has to have a bite of chicken and peas, but he can eat all of his rice if he wants.

    As for getting out of bed, there are a couple logical consequences you can use to set this up. Be sure he’s getting his love language met and that you’re doing couch time. Maybe he’s getting up because that’s the only time he sees you and your DH together? Just think about it. Then have your nice, normal bedtime routine and remind him that he is to stay in bed. Get your “yes, mommy, I will stay in bed.” Then, have the light on a bit, let him have some music, and leave the door open a crack. Every time he gets out of bed, you take one of those things away. First the music, then the light, then the door gets closed. Encourage him by saying, I know you are a good boy and want your door to stay open, so try your hardest to stay in bed.

    You could also use a marble or sticker reward chart while you work on this skill. I have taped reward charts to their bedroom door, and they are excited to see stickers there when they wake up. Oh, and make sure his nap isn’t too late!

    Your work on FTO will certainly help him in this area, but you can’t physically force him to stay or go to sleep. So just keep working on it, and try new tactics like these when FTO doesn’t work.

    Good luck!

  20. Wow. Horrifying.

  21. Hi – thanks for this post. We have two children – a 3 year old boy and 3 month old girl. A key challenge we face with our 3 year old boy is finding “consequences”. We tried most of the typical consequences, such as no sweets, no TV (or videos), or no particular toys. However, he seems to deal with these normally!!! Any thoughts on this?


  22. I am working very hard with FTO with my 4 year old. If I send him to his room for an attitude to get a grip. Can he come back out a few minutes later and tell me he has gotten a grip or should I decided how long he should stay? Also, he is getting up from sitting on his bed. What should I do to enforce that he should stay there until I come get him? Love this blog.

  23. Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a very good
    article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never seem
    to get anything done.