“Dinner is ready,” you call into the den. “Turn off the TV and come set the table. I told you not to start another show!”
You shuffle around the kitchen. Throw some salad into bowls, stir a pot, microwave this or that… The same routine every night.
“Turn off the TV and come set the table!” you call a little louder.
You start pulling down plates (not your job). You clean out the dirty coffee maker to get it ready for the morning. Your supply of patience dwindles.
“I SAID TURN OFF THE TV AND COME SET THE TABLE!”
You storm into the den. The kids whine and gripe. You grab the remote, turn off the TV, and start the lecture about:
- how many times you’ve called,
- how they have responsibilities,
- how TV privileges can be taken away.
The same routine every night. Ahh, what a lovely way to start dinner…
Nagging Is A Cycle That Can Be Broken
Having to nag at kids to complete simple tasks is one of the top complaints I get from clients.
Nagging sucks. I totally get it.
At best, it creates the sense that our children are opponents in some never-ending game. At worst, it makes us feel resentful and impotent.
To understand why children don’t respond to our directions, we have to recognize that something about that behavior is working for them.
I’ve written previously about how the function of the behavior (FOB) is the origin of the behavior. The FOB is always to GET or AVOID something. It’s the need your child is trying to meet.
The FOB of ignoring directions may be to GET access to the end of the TV show. Or to AVOID having to set the table. It may be to GET control of the routine, or AVOID engaging with us. Whatever the function is, if you’re having to nag children constantly, the ignoring behavior is working for them.
How to Stop Nagging in 2 Steps
Two simple strategies can drastically cut the amount of nagging you have to do.
These also can help you feel more connected to your children in a positive way. So let’s get you back on the same team with your family.
Step 1: Get In Their Faces
I know how that sounds. Just give me a minute to explain.
When it comes to changing a behavior, there are two factors we can adjust: the antecedent and the consequence.
The Antecedent is what comes before a Behavior. The Consequence is what comes after it. Together they are the ABCs of Behavior.
If ignoring a direction is the Behavior. The delivery of the direction, including the environment in which the direction is given, is the Antecedent.
In the example above, the direction is given from another room, while the children are absorbed in watching TV.
Do you see what I’m getting at? We have to change the antecedent. When you really want compliance, here’s the procedure I recommend.
In a clear, assertive and positive manner:
- Have your children look you in the face.
- Tell them you’re about to give a direction.
- Give the direction.
- Have them repeat it back to you.
- Remind them what’s in it for them. (More on this in step #2.)
The point is: Get their attention before giving directions, and hold it until you’re through.
As a teacher of kids with behavior disorders, I had to use this technique constantly. It was exhausting. But the response rate was nearly 100%, so I was motivated. (Notice I said “response” not “compliance.” But that’s another story for another time. Point is, they didn’t ignore me.)
With your children, you likely won’t have to do this every time, especially if you add step #2. But this is the starting point.
Step 2: Create an Incentive System
I’m a big fan of using tangible reinforcers to shape behaviors.
With tangible reinforcers, we create a new, positive Consequence that will follow the new behavior (turning off the TV and setting the table).
What’s the Consequence of the current, ignoring behavior? We yell again. And maybe again. We might even start the task for them while they continue enjoying TV. We might even give up…
Creating an incentive system is especially important at the beginning phases of behavior change, because children don’t have much reason to care about the new behavior.
It’s important to use incentives with the right touch so you don’t end up with entitled kids who want payment for every little thing. I’ve written at length about this in an earlier article, but here’s the cheat sheet:
- Explain the incentive system. Whether it’s tokens, checkmarks, or a jelly beans, teach your children how it works before you begin using it. Set clear expectations and parameters.
- Keep control of the incentives. They don’t get to ask for or demand them. (That’s an immediate forfeiture.) You deliver the reinforcer when a direction has been followed.
- Include social reinforcement. Always pair the delivery of the reinforcer with, “Thank you for following that direction the first time!” Throw in a high-five, a tickle, and/or a hug!
- Be consistent. You don’t have to give a reinforcer for every direction followed. But at least give verbal acknowledgement. This is important for creating a positive consequence. Remember, we want the new behavior to work for them.
You may be thinking, “Well, how could ignoring me possibly be working for them? I threaten punishment, and we all end up mad. It’s awful!”
Don’t forget who we’re dealing with here.
By nature, children have not yet fully developed their executive functioning (long-term thinking, reasoning, execution, etc.) As a result, they generally have low impulse control.
They live in the moment. Whatever is activating the reward center in their kid-brains is what they’ll likely go with. So we need to rewire them to seek more than just a few more minutes of precious television time.
Here’s a Bonus Nuclear Option
I prefer positive behavior modification, but I do appreciate the effectiveness of an occasional punitive consequence.
Earning, giving, and building with incentive systems is a great way to connect with children. But life can dole out harsh consequences sometimes, and I think we’re doing a disservice to our kids if we sidestep disappointment completely.
If you always have to nag around a certain activity, like screen time, the nuclear option is completely reasonable—after you’ve tried steps 1 and 2.
Here’s how I would do it: “You know what, I’ve noticed you have a hard time following directions when you’re on the iPad (or watching TV). So we’re going to take a break from those for a few days.”
Or if it’s always a clean up situation, all the toys left lying around might disappear into a bin on the top shelf for the week.
How Do You Know If It Worked?
If you’re trying for a punitive consequence and your kid doesn’t care, it didn’t work.
If you go for it, make sure it, um… resonates.
When parents say, “I send my kid to time out, but he doesn’t care.” Then the kid wasn’t in time out. (But that, too, is another topic for another day.)
We’re going for impact. Think of it as a teaching moment. We aren’t going for suffering or wounding. We’re searching for something punitive enough (and ideally linked to the behavior) to make them consider a different response next time.
But be sure to give them something to live for. Don’t ban their favorite activity for a month. That might as well be forever in kid time.
Take the thing away for a day, or a few. (The younger they are, the less time is needed.) Then let them try again and see if the behavior changes.
We’re teaching them the behavior we want. It does no good if they don’t have an opportunity to show us they can learn and act differently.
Here’s the most important thing to remember if you go the nuclear route: Follow through. Don’t ever, ever, ever make empty threats.
Children can smell an empty threat a mile away.
Compliance Is a Habit
Right about now you may be asking yourself, “How long will this last? Will I have to send care packages of jelly beans when my kid goes off to college?”
Here’s what I learned in my years of teaching kids: Compliance is a habit.
When we’re nagging, it’s because our children are out of the habit of listening to us. Let’s face it, we spend a lot of time telling them what to do. If there’s not enough consequence for them to alert to directions the first time, they just tune us out.
But dig in on these two strategies for a week and I guarantee you’ll see big changes.
Compliance will become habitual again. Everyone will be happier. And then you can dial back the incentive, because social reinforcement will be enough.
Things Will Run Smoothly… For a While
Then one day you’ll realize you just told your kid four times to lie back in the tub so you can wash her hair. Then you told her three more times to wash her feet!!!
OK, yes. I’m talking about me. (It happened just this week.)
The habit wears off from time to time until children develop intrinsic motivations of their own.
As Boss Parents, we just have to hunker down and reinstate the incentive strategy to get everyone back on track. Because we NEED to be able to give directions from the kitchen and know that things are going to happen.
Life is busy. We shouldn’t have to truck it in there, make eye contact, and have a whole danged conversation about turning off the TV every time. That’s ridiculous.
But sometimes we have to put the work in. We have to earn the respect and exercise their compliance muscles. Then we can coast for a few more weeks or months.
Here’s What It Looks Like in My House
OK, so let’s review what this looks like. Here’s a recent scenario between me and my daughter.
“Hey kiddo… hello… look at me, please.” (She finally looks up.)
“I’m giving you a direction. You need to clean up all of your art supplies right now.” (I will have already given her a 2-minute warning, because kids and adults need time to prepare for transitions.)
“OK. Tell me what you’re going to do right now,” I say. (She responds, “Clean up the art table.”)
I say, “Remind me again what you’re earning for following directions these days?”
She responds, “A jellybean!”
“Ok, then, GO!” I say, and give her a high-five.
Remember, children live in the moment. It’s the magic and the beauty of childhood.
We want them to be immersed in their play, their art, their books.
It’s unrealistic to expect them to snap to attention like little soldiers when there’s a household job to do. (I know I’d rather enjoy some screen-time of my own!)
It’s when things spiral way out of control that we need to take stock.
If you feel like all you ever do is nag, your kids may be ignoring your first request because they know another will follow. And another. And another. And if they wait long enough, the request might even go away.
Or we might snap! So give these two steps a shot and let me know if it works for you.
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About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents around the world with child behavior consulting.