Q. You’ve probably gotten this question a million times but I really need an answer.
How do I get my kids to do what they’re supposed to do? They are 12 and 9 years old — and will soon be 13 and 10 — but they completely ignore me when I prod them to walk the dog, do their homework, brush their teeth, and get ready for bed. I don’t mind giving them these reminders when I’m having a good day, but it can be so hard to do that when I’m exhausted.
Is it normal for children to act this way? Or is something wrong with them? I just want them to do all the basic stuff by themselves with just a little nudging. Please write back before I go out of my mind.
A. Nothing is wrong with your children that a little time won’t cure.
They may surprise you (and themselves) by acting with complete maturity for an hour or so at a time but then they’ll have a meltdown or pick their noses in public or ask your mother if she would like to hear them burp and say “Ralph” at the same time. They don’t do this to be mean or contrary, however, but because they are 9 and 12.
Your children can read, bathe themselves and make their own sandwiches, but childhood is still a long, slow process and it can get quite tedious sometimes. So yes, you do have to nag your children but unfortunately they won’t become responsible citizens until they’ve left home and have probably left college, too.
You won’t have to remind them so often, however, if you realize that you, like every parent, has a nag level — it varies from parent to parent and from child to child and your children know just what it is. No matter how often you tell them to walk the dog, they won’t move a muscle until they know from experience when you are about to explode.
There won’t be so many nags, and so many explosions, if you lower your nag level. But be respectful when you make your announcement and do it on a day when everyone is in a good mood. You also should ask the children for their input because they’re probably as tired of your reminders as you are and they’re bound to have some good ideas. Moreover, they’ll accept your new rules better than their own rules, for the discipline of a child is usually quite harsh. They’ll follow these rules better because you will have hammered them out together.
You also need to put some limits on their electronics, if you haven’t done that already, because they can be such a mindless distraction. Parents usually find that their children do their jobs quicker, finish their homework faster, and sleep better at night if TV is banned after dinner from Monday to Friday; also if Facebook and social media is banned after dinner; if the computer is only used in a place where parents can see the screen when they pass by, and if their children put their iPhones, iPods and iPads in a basket after dinner and leave them there until the next morning. This may sound drastic, but these limits will give them more balance in their lives and more time to hang out with each other and with you.
You should also let consequences guide your children as much as possible because they can’t think in abstractions yet. Rather than telling them to brush their teeth again and again, simply scribble the dentist’s name on an empty coffee can and have them drop in a quarter if they forget to brush their teeth. This shouldn’t be seen as a punishment, however, but to help you pay the dentist for filling their cavities.
You’ll also have more compliance if you don’t embarrass your children when they mess up on a job. They don’t need to be corrected when they use loose leaf to thank Aunt Tilly for the stationery she sent them, or say that they’re saving it for “something important.” It’s much more important for a child to get in the habit of writing thank you notes than to write them on the right paper or even to say the right things. They’ll learn, but this, too, takes time.
Above all, try to hold back your nagging if you possibly can and revel in your good luck. Twenty pairs of parents in Newtown, Conn., can never make that choice again.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.