Here’s What you Can Do Instead

You’ve probably heard them all. “Awww, Mom!!” “Do I have to.” Or my all-time favorite, “You can’t make me!”

Or maybe your kids’ routines are more along the lines of pouting, arguing, ignoring you (or agreeing and then ignoring you).

Either way, in the day-to-day dealings with children, there are few things more frustrating than dealing with resistance, power struggles, or outright refusals to do what you want.

On a bad day, even the most reasonable requests can trigger an uncooperative, passive-aggressive, or even hostile response. These interactions are annoying and exhausting, and can leave you feeling like a terrible parent.

The good news is that there are tools that will help you avoid having to bug your kids and build cooperation and respect. 

Know that you are not alone. Within two hours of posting a simple request to parents asking what they nag their children about, I had dozens of responses! Several of these comments listed a whole range of offenses, including chores and cleaning up after themselves, friends and curfew, homework, siblings, personal hygiene, and basic manners and consideration, especially those related to phones and other devices.

Sound familiar? Great. Well, let’s see what we can do to prevent conflict and build your kids’ sense of responsibility and respect.

Building cooperation

The tips below are all pieces of a big picture, one that can increase your kids’ commitment and cooperation without surrendering your authority. Don’t forget, even little ones want some autonomy, too, and need a balance of freedom and structure throughout their lives to grow into civilized adults. These front-end steps are important because the point here is to avoid a “gotcha” response when they mess up.

  • Anticipate their wants—and your limits—ahead of time. You know your kids. Are they going to ask for candy or a toy every time you go to the store? Will they want to use their devices at the dinner table? Consider what you’re willing to buy or allow before there’s a problem.
  • Make at least some of the good stuff conditional. It’s good for kids to learn the benefits of earning things that have meaning for them. The price of the privilege might be financial: “I’ll pay for half the cost of those jeans.” More often, what they want will depend on some level of cooperation: “You can have two cookies as long as you eat them at the kitchen table.”
  • Communicate your limits and conditions. Again, this works better if you let them know ahead of time. “You can pick out one candy bar as long as it costs less than $2.” “Let’s make (or keep) the dinner table a device-free zone.” 
  • Be specific. Good boundaries are clear boundaries. Your standards for a “clean room” are probably a little different from the what your kids might settle for. Don’t assume they know what you want (or even how to do it).
  • Use numbers: “You can jump in the pool two more times.” “You need to get the car back by 10:00 pm.” (Note: Some parents include their own time zone, or which clock they’re using to establish this limit.) <Put this with “Be specific…”?>
  • Be positive! Practice using promises instead of threats, focusing on the positive consequences of their cooperation. “You can go out as soon as you clean your room.” “You can have your phone tomorrow as long as you respond if I call or text you today.” 
  • Look for positive outcomes that have meaning and value for them. Kids will probably be more motivated to pick up their stuff when it gives them access to their video games than, say, when it gives them a chance to vacuum.
  • Get over the fear that you’re bribing them. Telling kids that they’re grounded if they don’t finish their chores is just as much a bribe as saying connecting chore-completion to a positive outcome. Threats and punishments are bribes, too.
  • Don’t depend on fear or threats. (This includes conditional love and approval.) Stop looking for bigger punishments. This is exhausting and creates a lot of stress and aggravation in your relationship—and your life. 
  • Give them choices. It gets pretty silly to fight against someone offering you some control in your life, which is exactly what choices offer. This strategy also helps prepare them to make constructive choices when you’re not there to tell them what to do. Not all things are negotiable, but a lot are.
  • Make all options acceptable. Don’t ask them to choose between what you want and what they want—like offering eggs or cookies for breakfast. “Do you want apple juice or grape juice?” “Pick two of the chores on the list and I’ll do the third one.” Try not to have an agenda for which choice they make.
  • Reminders are helpful. Reminders are different nagging, mainly because they happen before something doesn’t get done. Leaving notes to gently remind kids to hang up their towels or put dirty clothes in the hamper before laundry day can also increase the odds of cooperation with children who are better at remembering what they see, rather than what we say.
  • Say yes often, but don’t be afraid to say no. Also when you say yes as often as possible, they can be more reasonable about accepting a “no” when something is not available or simply non-negotiable.

When you have to say no

  • Find positive ways to say no without yelling, showing annoyance, or making them wrong.

State a fact: “We’re not buying candy this time.”

Acknowledge their desire: “I know you wish you could…”

Defer to another option: “You can pick out the cereal instead if you’d like.”

  • Take your emotional needs out of the equation. Telling them how sad, angry, or frustrated you feel when they don’t listen puts an enormous burden on children of any age. You want them to do what you want for outcomes that have nothing to do with your emotional wellbeing or conditional love and approval.

When they blow it

Assuming you have communicated your boundaries and (hopefully) gotten agreement beforehand, there will probably be times when your kids “forget” or get sloppy about holding up their end of an ongoing bargain. Good follow through can save you big headaches down the road. You need to respond, and fortunately, you can do so without losing your cool!

  • Withdraw the privilege. This is the tough part, but if you have any hope of gaining your kids’ respect for your wishes and requirements, much less build their sense of independence and responsibility, you’ve got to be willing to follow through on whatever conditions you set up.

Laundry didn’t make it to the hamper? Leave it on the floor. (This became a great opportunity for one mom to teach her daughter how to wash her own clothes.) Homework not done? Unplug or remove devices until the situation changes.

  • Stay neutral. Your kids messed up, and every bone in your body is probably going to want to criticize, blame, or gloat over the fact that they’ve lost a privilege. This is the cool thing about following through on a previously established boundary: You don’t have to hurt them or make them wrong. In fact, keep words to a minimum.
  • Validate their disappointment—even their anger. Anticipate a not-very-happy response, especially if you’ve been pretty wishy-washy about follow through in the past. Again, resist the temptation to say, “I told you so” or blame them for bringing this on themselves.
  • Keep the door open for them to change things more to their liking. “I know you’re angry. We’ll try again tomorrow (or next week).” “I want to hear what you have to say. Let’s take a few minutes and try again without the yelling (or swearing or disrespect).”

Build a connection

Few of us have had great models for healthy and effective authority relationships, yet there is a middle ground between heavy-handed authoritarian parenting and permissiveness.

Start thinking win-win: How can we all get what we want? Model the behaviors, language, tone of voice, and self-control you want them to develop—and use! Give them reasons to want to do what you want.

Kids tend to be less argumentative, resistant, obstinate when they feel like you’re on their side. (If your relationship has been fairly antagonistic for a while, or if they tend to bristle at anything you say, this could take some time.)

Step back and look at the bigger picture, and focus on the quality of the relationship with your children. Because a caring, cooperative connection will last a lot longer than an argument about unfinished chores or unreturned texts.

© Dr. Jane Bluestein, 2017. This article was originally written for a column on the YourTango website in December 2017.

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