Parents often struggle on a daily basis to get their kids to do the most basic tasks. Requests to get dressed, brush teeth, put away toys, and of course go to bed can result in ignoring, defying, or arguing behavior from our children. We find ourselves nagging, pleading, bribing, yelling, and threatening several times a day with very poor results. Often we end up doing things for our children out of desperation, the need to be on time, or simply to end an argument. Then the next day it seems this negative cycle begins all over again!

It is possible to have much more cooperation from your children than you might think possible. It often requires shifting to an attitude of empowering your children to be capable and competent, so that they develop habits of self-discipline and self-care. If you are disciplined about allowing your children to be responsible for any task they are capable of completing you will avoid the helpless or uncooperative child who balks at your requests. Here are some tips to move you along in this process:

  1. Create morning and evening routines that never vary, as well as routines for other times in the day that are challenging. Once these routines are entrenched then you can occasionally make exceptions without paying too high a price.
  1. Identify what will motivate your child to complete their routine — e.g. stories at bedtime, a card game before school, time to build Legos, etc. Take photos of your child completing each task on their list, and have her help you print them and create a poster. Make sure the last photo is her playing or getting attention from you.
  1. If your child becomes distracted or is unwilling to cooperate, ask him what his poster says he should be doing, but refrain from telling him what to do.
  1. Allow your child to experience the logical consequences that occur when he does not do what he needs to accomplish and avoid rescuing him, even if he is having a tantrum. Perhaps he misses breakfast because he didn’t get dressed in time. Or maybe he loses access to his toys for a week because they weren’t cleaned up. We want to express disappointment, but not anger, that he didn’t get his play time. Encourage your child and communicate that tomorrow will go better, that he will remember to do what he needs to do, that you have confidence in him.For older kids, loss of screen time is certainly a reasonable consequence for lack of responsibility, as we want our children to develop the understanding that they earn privileges for contributing to the well-being of the family.
  1. Use a timer to help your child with transitions, and to keep you out of the role of the reminder. Use the timer in positive ways as well, such as to let them know when you will be free to play with them or do a project together.
  1. Every day be sure to ask your child to help you with your grown up routines, e.g. cooking, laundry, care of younger siblings, gardening, grocery shopping. Children thrive when they are making a tangible contribution to the family at the same time they are learning invaluable life skills. Help them feel that you can’t manage without their help.

So often our frustration with our children comes from our repeatedly giving instructions. Create a rule for yourself that you will ask ONCE, and then act with firmness, not anger. All parents fall into the habit of making a request two, three, even four times, then losing patience, yelling and forcing the child to comply. This teaches children that they don’t need to listen until mom or dad are yelling, and creates a negative communication pattern in the family.

These strategies take time, practice, and self-discipline to become effective — but it is well worth the effort. You will find that your children become increasingly responsible, independent, and competent —and feel really good about themselves as productive members of the family.

Karen Friedland-Brown, MA, is the Director of Parents Place on the Peninsula.

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