Me: Do you want chicken soup or a baked potato for dinner?
Me (slightly louder): Do you want chicken soup or a baked potato for dinner?
Me (definitely louder): Do you want chicken soup or a baked potato for dinner?
Me (dialed up to 11): I said do you want . . .
Does this conversation sound familiar to you? Do you find your voice rising, your tone getting harsher, and still no response? You are not alone. For a while almost every conversation I was having with my children sounded just like that!
Believe me, I never wanted to become that parent. None of us do. So why is it so easy to fall into the habit of nagging?
Mostly it’s a question of acting on instinct. We get distracted. Whether it’s our job, our phone, our worries, our to-do list, something is consuming our thoughts and we start acting on auto-pilot.
Another reason parents nag is because they are trying to assert their authority.
We make the mistake of equating parental authority with bossiness instead of leadership. According to Dr. Robert Myers, PhD, nagging says, in effect, “I will stop punishing you with this annoying nagging when you do what I want you to.”
While it’s good to teach your children to respect authority, nagging doesn’t actually accomplish that goal. A good parent doesn’t demand respect. We earn respect by showing respect. And we teach respect by showing respect.
Why Nagging Doesn’t Work
Our short-term goal is to be heard. Kids, actually all humans, tune out nagging.
Our long-term goal is to help our children grow into successful adults. Nagging derails that in several ways.
We want our children to have self-confidence. Nagging wears that down. It causes them to question themselves instead of teaching them they have what it takes to succeed.
We want them to learn how to make mistakes and move on. Nagging sends the message that it’s not ok to make even one little mistake. Instead of becoming resilient, they will become anxious and reluctant to try new things.
We want them to have a relationship with us even when they’re grown up. This is not going to come easy if we have built a foundation of frustration.
On the other hand, if they grow up seeing us be their cheerleaders and mentors, most likely they will want that to continue.
But, you ask, how else can I get my children’s attention or compliance without nagging or raising my voice?
Here are five things I learned that really work.
1. Don’t Compete with a Screen
It’s unfair to your children to expect them to pay attention to you when a movie or video game already has their attention. No human can give their full attention to more than one thing at a time.
Let’s face it, we are really not interesting enough to trump whatever they are watching, especially if we’re telling them to do a chore.
Push pause. Make eye contact. Crouch down to their level and even maybe touch their shoulder. Then speak.
They will hear you because you have created the right environment for them to pay attention. And they will remember.
A study done by James P. Otteson found that students whose teacher made eye contact with them had better recall memory of the material that was discussed. If we can make eye contact with our kids the chances are they will actually remember the point we were trying to make!
2. Don’t Endlessly Repeat Yourself
That was the mistake I made in the opening scenario. If you catch yourself repeating the same sentence, stop and figure out why no one is listening. If you keep going like a broken record, you are training them to ignore you.
Instead, make sure you have their attention first. Try using the eye contact tactic I described before. Another trick is to talk in a whisper. It is unexpected, it catches their attention, and makes what you have to say sound like a secret. A secret is much more exciting than an endlessly repeated command.
3. Give Them Time to Accept Your Request
Transitioning from one activity to the next is hard for kids. Most often, they will resist at first. Don’t get upset. Just give them a minute without giving reasons or ultimatums.
Once they’ve thought about what you’re saying, they are more likely to accept it and willingly do as you ask.
No one likes to get pushed into doing something. Not only is it unfair to expect blind obedience, it doesn’t teach them to think for themselves and take responsibility for their own actions.
4. Use Humor
Act silly, sing a song, tell a joke.
When I was little, I hated to wake up in the morning. But my dad made it so much better when he woke me up in the morning singing a silly song about opening the windows and letting the sunshine in.
Using humor is a super parenting skill because it can set a positive tone for your whole day. Getting a child to see the humor in a potentially frustrating situation can diffuse all the negative emotions and keep stubbornness and hard feelings at bay. Laughter will draw you closer to your child instead of driving a wedge between you.
Telling a joke or acting silly when your child is distracted can pull their attention to you in a gentle way. This is especially important because sometimes kids don’t mean to ignore you. They may be feeling overwhelmed by other things. Which brings me to the last tip –
5. Be Specific
Did you say to your child, “Go clean your room,” and they gave you a blank look? They might be feeling overwhelmed by how huge a task that is!
Help them out by being more specific. Tell them, “Put your dirty clothes into the hamper.“ When that is done don’t forget to give them some positive reinforcement – “You put all your clothes into the hamper!” – and then give the next step.
This is especially important for preschoolers and toddlers because they can’t yet do complex, multi-step tasks, but may be required even with older kids if you are asking them to do something complex or they have too many things on their mind.
It’s Worth the Effort to Make a Change
You may be saying, “I just want to survive the day.” If that’s how you feel, I hear you! This parenting thing is no easy gig. We all have days like that.
But short term thinking will only get you so far.
If you take the quick fix, you make it harder on yourself in the long run. Your relationship with your child will just get worse. Your interactions will get more negative. You will feel more exhausted.
If you turn today around, tomorrow will get that much easier because your child will want to hear you. They will naturally respond with respect because they feel respected. And you will be giving them the building blocks for confidence in life.
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a step back. Try to pinpoint why you fall into nagging. Is it because of distraction, anxiety, or maybe not knowing what else to do?
When are you nagging? Is there are a particular time of day? What is happening at that time of day that is distracting them from hearing you? Or is there a particular task that you are nagging about? Think about if that big job can be broken down into smaller and more manageable tasks.
Then take an honest look at the effect nagging is having on your family. Is it helping you achieve your parenting goals?
Long-Term Action Plan for Fine Parents
This week, try to start each day on a positive note. What works for me is to give myself a little pep talk. I tell myself, “This is going to be a good day!” I try to give myself a few minutes to collect my thoughts and make my mental outline of the day before waking the kids.
This helps me feel less cranky and stressed. Then I can let my kids know our plan for the day. They will also feel less stressed if they know what to expect.
Make it a goal to have the first words out of your mouth to your children be positive, upbeat, even playful if possible.
Just taking five minutes at the start of each day to do this will help you reduce nagging and talk so your children will hear you!