How often do you have to ask your kids to do something before they actually do it? Three, four, or nine times? This particular problem can likely account for most of the stress you deal with as a parent. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your children would just listen to you the first time? All your headaches would be gone!
I’ve seen this interaction play out time and time again in dozens of different families, including my own. You ask your child to do or not do something, like put away their toys. Your child nonchalantly continues to play seemingly completely oblivious to the fact they have parents at all. You tell your child again, really hoping this time will be the charm and you’ll be able to avoid a headache. But the child’s resolve to ignore you is unshakeable. Now, getting frustrated, you begin to raise your voice and speak more seriously. You may even break out the “I’m going to count to three” at this point. Although, for many, this is the point where you begin to threaten.
“If you don’t put those toys away right now, you won’t be able to watch TV for a week (or insert your favorite threat).” At this point, your child usually starts to listen but they begin their moaning and complaining. “Do I have to? Why? I don’t wanna.” To quell this backtalk you really get serious about this threat. “You have 10 seconds to put those toys away or you lose access to the iPad and TV for a week.” At this point, your child will take another minute to complain and whine but will put the toys away. Do you hold firm to those threats because it took them an extra 50 seconds to do? You probably decide it’s too much work and easier to just let it go.
This interaction pattern I’ve described is similar with older kids as well, even teens. It looks a little different, but the essence of making requests multiple times, threatening heavy-handed punishments, and those threats mostly working (but not always) is the same.
So, what to do about this? Is there any hope in reversing this pattern? There certainly is, but the solution takes effort. And things will likely get worse before they get better. If you are committed to turning this dysfunctional pattern around, here are three steps to help.
I’ve got good news and bad news for you. You probably want to hear the bad news first: this problem began with you. You created this pattern of your kids not listening to you the first or second time through lack of consistency and predictability. I’ll touch on this more in later steps. The good news: This can end with you. You have the power to correct this pattern. Step one is to acknowledge the role you have played in this pattern and take accountability for it.
Predictability is what children need to thrive. For developing minds, predictability provides a safe environment to grow and learn. Unpredictable environments, such as those caused by abuse, lead to negative outcomes across the child’s lifetime. To create a predictable environment you must establish boundaries, expectations, and consequences.
Boundaries are the big “no no’s”. These are things you just don’t do in this family such as hitting, skipping school, doing drugs, etc. Expectations have a little more leniency. It’s not the end of the world if an expectation isn’t met like it may be with a boundary.
Expectations may be things like cleaning your room, listening the first time, doing your homework before playing, one hour of TV time, etc.
Consequences are exactly what you are thinking. This is what happens if a boundary or expectation is broken or violated. It’s important to remember that the more connected these consequences are to a principle, the greater the impact they will have. This also helps to ensure the punishment fits the crime. For example, if your child plays before completing their homework the consequence could be extra chores to be completed before they play for a specified amount of time. This consequence not only eats into their paly time, but it reinforces the principle of responsibilities before freedoms.
All of these should be laid out in a way your children can be intimately familiar with the family boundaries, expectations, and consequences. This makes your job a little easier in step three.
This is probably the most difficult of all the steps. This step is about consistency. It is your job as the parent to follow through with the established consequences in relation to the outlined boundaries and expectations. One thing that is sure to hurt you in this area is making empty threats. The threats that you never follow through with is what got you in this situation. They must stop. If you have laid out consequences associated with the family boundaries and expectations, then all you have to do is remind your child of those consequences. And then follow through. Every time. This is about short-term pain for long-term gains.
I hope these steps are helpful and give you the courage and tools you need to make changes. Happy parenting!