When we feel as if we are constantly giving our children directions or commands, it is likely that we are using an “Imperative Language” communication style. Imperative language is used when we are requesting or demanding something (“Get in the car”), giving choices (“Would you like the car or the bubbles”,) or asking questions (“How old are you?”). When we ask a child to follow directions or answer questions that have a right or wrong answer, we are checking their understanding, but not asking them to problem solve. When we keep telling a child what to do and when to do it, she doesn’t have to learn to think on her own. You are thinking… “Hmm if I didn’t tell her to get those ballet shoes in her bag, the shoes wouldn’t be in there when it was time for ballet. I would pay the price because I would have to bring them to her. Oh my, what can I do so this doesn’t go on forever?”

What Can You Do?

It is time to use a “Declarative Language” communication or speaking style with her. This type of communication doesn’t make any direct demands on the listener. So, what is declarative language, you wonder? With declarative language you are sharing an experience with her and thinking out loud for her to hear what you think and notice. We are inviting her to observe the context of the interaction, think about what she knows and what needs to be done. Remember we want to drive her to think and come up with her own solutions. So, you model your thinking process for her so that she can begin to develop her own inner voice and then draw important conclusion on her own. Declarative language includes invitations (“Let’s ride bikes”), statements (“I’m tired of riding bikes!”) and self-narratives (“I’m going to the garage to get my bike”.)

When you use declarative language you comment, or make statements out loud about what you both might be thinking. Linda Murphy M.S., CCC-SLP, CEIS**,** Relational Development Consultant, shares the following, “Declarative language may include:

  • Verbs that talk about our thinking process such as: think, wonder, know, remember, forget, decide, and imagine.
  • Observational words related to our senses such as: notice, hear, see, smell and feel. (“Hmmm I’ve noticed that…”)
  • Words or phrases that communicate emotion such as: I’m not sure, I like, I don’t like, I feel happy, silly, excited, afraid, nervous, embarrassed, or upset.
  • First person pronouns such as: I, we or us.
  • Words of uncertainty or possibility such as: maybe, might, possibly, perhaps and sometimes.”

Let’s look at the differences between Imperative and Declarative Language:

Imperative language does not leave room for problem solving as it is specific, detailed directive or a question. There is a right and wrong answer. Generally, the purpose is for us to “get something” from another person. For example, “Sarah, clean up your paints and paint brushes.” Here we wanted to get her to clean up her mess.

We want to teach children to see the big picture so they can begin to create more than one solution to a problem. In contrast, we want to say to Sarah, “We have to go to grandma’s in ten minutes, what might you need to do before we go?” This gives Sarah an opportunity to a take a step back, notice the paint brushes, paint bottles and sink. It allows her to think and problem solve independently leaving open the possibility that there may in fact be more than one solution. Perhaps she needs to put the paints away, grab her shoes and get the new book she wants to show Grandma so that she is ready to go.

When asking questions, don’t rush to give the answer. Try to encourage the thinking process.

  • “How many cookies are enough?”
  • “I wonder, why does Mr. Ben do that….”
  • “That’s a good question, how can we…”
  • “Who would know about that – the weatherman?”

Don’t tell your child what to do. Hold off on your instincts to feed your child a step by step list of what to do to complete the project. Instead, provide cues if necessary to encourage independent thinking so your child knows what to do:

  • “How are you going to know what you need?”
  • “How are you going to know what is most important?”
  • “How are you going to decide where to set that up?”
  • “How are you going to decide what to do first?”
  • “How will you know when you are done?”
  • “How did that work out?”
  • “How long do you think that took?”
  • “How did you manage/know how to do it?”
  • “Would you do anything differently?”

Here are a few scenarios that might help you better understand how declarative language might help your child become an independent thinker:

  • Your eight year old son is watching TV and needs to leave to go to basketball practice in thirty minutes. You say, “Hmm, I noticed your big brother is busy getting ready to go to practice.”

You are thinking out loud for him to hear what you are noticing. You are inviting him to observe, think about what he knows and what needs to be done. Remember we want to drive him to think and come up with his own solution or plan of action. Hopefully, he is going to get his practice clothes on and grab a ball to go.

  • Your 14-year-old daughter is constantly leaving the cabinets in the kitchen open. Every time she does you say, “Close the cabinet!” Right? Let’s use declarative statements instead. You could say “Rachel, before you sit down to eat what should the kitchen look like?”

What’s the difference? Well- Rachel’s got to notice, “Okay, the cabinet doors are open. Whoops, this is a cue, they should be closed.” This requires much more advanced thinking than the imperative command “Close the cabinet!”

When your child’s safety is involved there is no need to use a declarative statement. Just quickly and imperatively demand what you need your child to do. “Stop! Don’t walk there.”

If your child doesn’t respond to the declarative statements, don’t continue to use declarative statements. Perhaps your child isn’t ready for learning to be an independent problem solver.

Change is hard for all of us. Changing your speaking style takes time and effort. It is not easy. It takes slowing down and being mindful as you are engaging with your child. Try taking small steps so you are not overwhelmed. Through using this speaking style you drive your child to begin to independently make decisions.


  • Murphy. L., 2015 in Alford, E., The Importance of Declarative Language, RDI Connect Community Blog, Jun 28, 2017
  • Ward, S., and Jacobsen, K., www.cognitiveconnections.com retrieved 2015

Similar Posts