Getting my kids to listen is perhaps my least favorite part of parenting.
Of course, the problem isn’t me, it’s my kids, right? They're defective? And I'm actually eligible for a refund?
As soon as I imagine asking others for advice on how to manage uncooperative children – the nerve! – I realize that the problem is me. The problem is nagging.
I hate it that the problem is always me!
I know what I need to do. I need to stop asking multiple times. And I know I need to change how I ask.
So, for example, I want Amelie to get into her bathing suit (we were on vacation last week). I need to not yell instructions to her from a different room as I am busily packing the beach bag. Even though that feels a lot more convenient in the moment.
No. I need to stop what I am doing. Walk into the room where she is. Go over to her. Touch her if she’s distracted, and wait until I have her attention. I’ll know when I have it because I’ll have eye contact. (Pro-tip – turn off all electric screens before attempting this.)
Once I have Amelie’s attention, tell her, “Amelie I need to you to put on your bathing suit.”
If she says okay and gets to work, consider myself lucky.
If she says no, consider brokering a deal, “Okay, two more minutes and then you’ll put on your bathing suit?” If she accepts, set an audible timer and prepare to come back in two minutes to enforce the time limit.
If that fails, then I need to be the adult in the situation. I hate that.
So then I need to say, “Amelie, it looks like you need help getting your bathing suit on, so I am going to help you.”
Then I need to physically take charge of her body getting into her bathing suit, just like I would with an infant. It’s not her fault and it’s not a punishment. I shouldn’t be operating in anger. (A bit of frustration is okay!) Ideally, I can keep in my mind that her prefrontal cortex is not fully functional yet and so I am basically operating her underdeveloped frontal lobe for her right now.
The good news is that if I do this consistently – only asking ONCE, no nagging at all! – she will start to take me more seriously and is more likely to comply with my request in the first place.
Talking about this with a friend whose 9-year-old was frustratingly noncompliant, she argued with me, “but I don’t WANT to help her get ready. A nine-year-old should be able to get herself ready on her own!”
Yup. I hear you. Both these options suck. She should be able to get ready on her own.
But the fact is, she isn't.
Do you know that expression, "she isn't giving you a hard times, she's having a hard time?"
She’s showing you she isn’t, actually, able to right now, no matter how much she "should" be able to. No matter what her age. Kids show us what they are able to do. And their abilities change minute to minute, day by day. Arguing with reality – that she should be able to do something – is only going to make my friend more frustrated.
So we have a choice. We can nag or we can help get the job done. They both take energy.
The first choice might take less physical labor but it’s only teaching our children to ignore us until we get angry. Over time, this teaches them to ignore us and also chips away at our bonds.
The second choice takes more energy in the short term but it’s a lot less maddening – once we do our thought work and remind ourselves “she would do better if she could, so clearly she can’t” – and in the long run, is actually increasing our odds of cooperation the next time.
The choice seems obvious but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Take it from me. I’ll report back in a few weeks on how it’s going in my house!
If you'd like help getting back on your parenting game -- let's face it, we all need a reset from time to time -- schedule a free consult. We can talk everything from sleep to feeding to positive discipline.
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Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.