Can you imagine if your partner said to you, "put your shoes on" 10 times before you left the house? Is there any reason to listen to the first nine times? By the tenth time, you might be ready to throw your shoes out the door and tell your partner to go by themselves!
And yet, with our kids, we yell orders from the other room and wonder why our demands are not met. We repeat them again and again, ramping up our own anger and frustration.
They ignore us and we keep demanding.
The only person we can make do something is ourselves.
It’s hard when our kids don’t cooperate. It’s downright exhausting at times. It’s also hard to hear our kids upset. The tears, the anger, the defiance; it hurts our heads and our hearts. However, all the nagging, demanding, coaxing, bribing and explaining isn’t working.
We need to accept a fundamental truth in parenting and life in general: The only person we can make do something is ourselves. Instead of nagging over and over again, consider some of these strategies to get cooperation:
What to try:
- Ask a question. We are more likely to cooperate when we feel in control of ourselves. A question puts the locus of control in our child’s hands. Try, “What do you need to put on your feet so you are ready to leave for school?” or “What is our agreement about what happens before TV time?” or “What’s your plan for taking the dog for a walk this afternoon?”
- Make sure your question is heard. No one likes to have orders yelled at them from the other room. Go where they are, get at eye level and make sure they are ready to talk before engaging.
- Let them know your plan. Got eye contact and asked a question but still no cooperation? Time to disengage. “Honey, it’s time to leave for school. I will be on the porch when you are ready.” “I will be in my room. Let me know when you have brushed your teeth and then we can have reading time.”
- Get moving. Standing around watching kids ignore us is only going to frustrate us more. Physically removing yourself, even if it is just to the other side of the room, and engaging in a different activity, lets them know you are not in for a power struggle. It also conveys that we trust them to take care of the situation.
- Create a routine. Find yourself in the same power struggle over and over again? It’s time to plan ahead and create a routine with your child, so that each person knows what is expected of them. Make a list together of everything that needs to happen in that part of the day. Put the items in order giving as much choice to your child as possible, and try it out. Trust your child to follow through on their part and avoid nagging. If they get stuck, try a question: “What do you need to do next so you have everything you need for school?” Or use a when-then statement: “When you have put away the Legos, then we can leave for Bobby’s house.”
How to deal with emotions:
“But I wanna go to the park now!” You’ve explained why you can’t go for 10 minutes, yet they won’t give up. Why would they? Even though they are not at the park, they get your full attention as long as they are willing to keep at it. Kids are persistent, so it’s up to you to act. Try these three steps:
- Acknowledge their request. “I hear you. You really, really want to go to the park today,” or “You really wanted me to take you and Sarah to the mall today.”
- One empathetic statement. “You are so mad that we can’t go to the park,” or “I am sorry I am not able to take you and Sarah today. I get that you are disappointed.”
- Zip it! Here’s where we often get into trouble. They say, “but why not?” and we respond with a few reasons. They ask again, we give more reasons. They get mad or sad, we explain more, getting frustrated ourselves, and the process loops until both people are quite unhappy. Instead, we can help our children learn to sit with their emotions. We can do this most effectively by modeling it right then.
Take a deep breath and get centered because, you guessed it, they are going to ask again. If you can remain calm, your words are more likely to be heard. Make eye contact and say, “I love you, and we are not going to the park today. We can pick another day to go when we are calm.”
It’s okay for your child to be mad or sad about it. That doesn’t mean we need to make their emotions go away. If we want them to be able to face disappointment in the future, they need to practice feeling these emotions and getting through them.
If they ask again, you can say. “It’s okay for you to be mad. I am not going to talk about this more right now, but I am happy to read a book to you while we calm down.” Or, “I am not going to discuss going to the mall any more right now. I am going to my room to take a break and calm down. I will be back in 10 minutes.” Both of these statements need to be said with kindness and calm to be heard effectively.
If this is the first time you are stepping out of the explaining loop, be ready for some persistence from your child. Your response will be new to them and it may take them a little bit to get that you mean what you say.
Actions speak louder than words
When it comes down to it, nagging our kids doesn’t work any better than nagging our partners. It also teaches them to keep nagging, even when we have said no to their request. We may feel sad we can’t meet their request, but continuing to explain and justify just keeps others from accepting the facts.
When in doubt, stop talking and decide what you can do to take care of yourself. Your child will learn that continuing the debate isn’t effective and that self-care is a better way to deal with disappointment. The good news is, with some practice, we can learn to communicate as a family in ways that help children and parents both feel respected.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2018, and updated in January 2020.