When it comes to your kids making excuses, you’ve probably heard them all.
“Aww, Mom! Do I have to?” Or the all-time favorite, You can’t make me!”
Or maybe your kids’ routines are more along the lines of pouting, arguing, and 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 from your kids. 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 on Facebook 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.
If so, don’t worry — there are ways to prevent conflict and build your kids’ sense of responsibility and respect without turning to nagging:
1. Start by building a sense of 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 along the way to turn into civilized adults.
These “front-end” steps for building cooperation with your child are important because they can help avoid a “gotcha” response when he or she messes 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 might say, “You can pick out one candy bar as long as it costs less than $2,” or “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 what your kids might settle for.
Don’t assume they know what you want (or even how to do it). Another way to do this is by using numbers. For example, “You can jump in the pool two more times,” or “You need to finish your homework by 8:00 pm.”
Be positive. Practice using promises instead of threats, which focuses on the positive consequences of their cooperation. Examples include, “You can go out as soon as you clean your room,” or “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 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 can do. 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.
Instead, give them options, but make them both options you can live with, such as “Do you want apple juice or grape juice?” or “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 than 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 frequently, but don’t be afraid to say no. Also when you say yes as often as possible, kids can be more reasonable about accepting a “no” when something is not available or simply non-negotiable.
2. Practice positive ways of saying “no.”
Find positive ways to say no without yelling, showing annoyance, or making them wrong. This might include:
Stating a fact: “We’re not buying candy this time.”
Acknowledging their desires: “I know you wish you could…”
Or deferring to another option: “You can pick out the cereal instead if you’d like.”
And don’t forget to 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 well-being or conditional love and approval.
3. Learn how to address bad behavior when they blow it.
Even if you have communicated your boundaries and (hopefully) gotten an agreement beforehand, there will still be times when your kids “forget” or get sloppy about holding up their end of an ongoing bargain. In cases like this, you need to be prepared with an appropriate course of action. You might:
Withdraw the privilege. This is the tough part, but if you have any hope of gaining your kids’ respect for your wishes and requirements — and want to build their sense of independence and responsibility — you’ve got to be willing to follow through on whatever conditions you set up.
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Let your child deal with the consequences. Laundry didn’t make it to the hamper? Leave it on the floor and don’t wash it. (This became a great opportunity for one mom to teach her daughter how to wash her own clothes.) Is homework not done? Unplug or remove devices until the situation changes.
Stay neutral. So 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 and merely follow through with the consequences you’ve already outlined.
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. Try saying things like, “I know you’re angry. We’ll try again tomorrow (or next week),” or “I want to hear what you have to say. Let’s take a few minutes and try again without the yelling.”
4. Foster a deeper connection with your kid.
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. Some ways to approach this are:
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. Remember to 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 is an author, artist, and life-long educator who works with parents, counselors, and educators worldwide. She is the author of the award-winning books, Parents, Teens, and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line and The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting. Learn more on her website.