I Hate Nagging My Kids. What Else Works?
At what age should kids be expected to manage their responsibilities without constant reminders? Dr. Lisa explains how parents can help kids remember to do things on their own. What else works besides nagging? Reena asks for strategies to help parents at home. Lisa introduces us to psychologist Haim Ginott who offers the perfect phrasing for motivating kids.
October 12, 2021 | 24 min
Transcript | I Hate Nagging My Kids. What Else Works?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 51: I Hate Nagging My Kids. What Else Works?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: Oh my gosh. They’re clothes are everywhere, we’re supposed to tape this podcast, there’s dishes all over from breakfast. I told my kids, I’m not Alice Brady. You guys have got to know what to do here.
LISA: Wait Alice Bracy, she was the maid. She wasn’t a Brady, right?
REENA: You’re right, actually. I called her Brady because she felt like part of the family.
REENA: So, they giggled at each other and they said, who is Alice Brady? They’ve never watched the Brady Bunch. Oh my gosh, Lisa, I have been asking you for weeks. How do I get my kids to do these things? I hate nagging, I hate that part of myself, and I realized I’m not alone. We got this letter says: ‘Hello, Lisa. I’ve been really enjoying the wide variety of topics on your podcast and have a question for you. Although it seems like it should be such a simple task for my kids who are 13 and 15, I’m finding it particularly hard to get them to pick up their clothes off the floor, make their bed, get their bathrooms picked up, brush their teeth in the morning.’ Oh my gosh. Yes. I understand that. ‘I hate being a nagging mom always having to remind them to do the simple task, but I find that if I don’t, it doesn’t get done. Should I let it go and not worry about it? Should there be a consequence if it’s not done? The constant mess around the house is a lot to manage, and I’d love to hear your suggestions on how to handle it without having to be on top of them all the time.’ Oh my god. A thousand amens to this. A thousand. Thank you for this letter, this beautiful letter that I’ve been struggling with this as well. Lisa, what else works besides nagging.
LISA: Well, this doesn’t work but I just have to mention it. So I went through a period with my family where I was like, no, I don’t nag, I give helpful reminders. So I would say to my family, would you like a helpful reminder? I have a helpful reminder for you. So they don’t think I’m funny but I think I’m funny. Okay so this is parenting. Like parenting can feel like nagging and it’s not that fun. Okay, so let’s unpack a little bit. Like, okay, Reena, why do you nag? When you nag, why do you nag?
REENA: Because I’ve told you a thousand times to do this and it’s driving me up the wall that you haven’t done it. This is now the twentieth time I’ve told you.
LISA: Okay, so you nag because you want it done. You want the thing done, and there are things that have to get done, and our kids seem to not remember that they need to get done. So, if we frame this as how do we get kids to remember to do the things they’re supposed to do? That, I think, starts to breathe a little life into this, right? Because right now the option that you’re exercising, and this mom is exercising, is they remember to do the things they’re supposed to do because I reminded them to do the things they’re supposed to do, and we hate this and they hate this and so we want to get out of this role. So, part of how I think about this probably comes from the amount of time I spent teaching college and, you know, we give out syllabi at the start of the semester, which are basically like these are all the things you’re supposed to do, like I will not be mentioning it again, like you have it in writing, and so there’s something to be said for putting in writing what it is the kids are supposed to do, and you can do this really young. Some families do sticker charts, right? Of all of the tasks that a kiddo has and then they give them stickers for doing all of those things and then, you know, a certain number of stickers amounts to, you know, a trip to Target with five bucks in your pocket, you know, like there’s some reward. I have to tell you, Reena, I cannot manage a sticker chart. There is no point in parenting where I had the attention or organization or investment to actually keep track of something at that level of detail, so congratulations and awesome for the families who can do this. I just don’t personally, that for me has never worked.
REENA: Or the kids move out quickly from the sticker chart phase?
LISA: Yeah. It just doesn’t last forever, but what can work, even when you are like developmentally in a sticker chart phase, and I think this actually lays some pretty good groundwork is a list of the things that need to happen, and I started doing this actually with both of my daughters when they were young, but, you know, because it’s the morning, like a lot of what you’re describing, like it’s the morning, it’s getting out of the house, and so for both girls I had them sit with me, and this is when they were like 4, 5, 6, and make a one sheet that had all of the tasks of the morning in the rough order in which they occurred, and you put easy stuff on there like get up, use the potty, you know, easy wins.
LISA: So the, one thing and this is really thinking in that syllabus model like what helps them to remember the beside me reminding them, is then also on that sheet are things like eat breakfast, make your bed, brush your teeth, you know, put on your clothes, whatever, and my rule always was you can’t do anything else until these things are done. Like if you want to watch a little TV before school or whatever, you know, you have to first do these things, and so then when I had a kid dawdling around in front of me, I’d say, are you done with your list? And so then it was their job to go check the list and their job to do the things on the list, but I wasn’t the one saying, now you brush your teeth, now you put on your shoes, you know, that I was like, are you done with your list? If you’re done with your list, then you can go do other stuff. If you’re not done with your list, you need to go to your list. So, that’s for little kids. What I wonder, I know this sounds juvenile, but I actually wonder if there’s some older version of this, especially for kids who aren’t doing it.
LISA: Right? So, if we think about your morning, and your kids are not little kids anymore, is there a list you could make that would get you out of this role?
REENA: Is there a list they could make? Like have them write down everything?
LISA: Yeah, and then post it somewhere they can see it.
REENA: I see.
LISA: Would that work?
REENA: That’s interesting. I find I might finally get them to make the list, and what if they just don’t adhere to doing it. Like how do you incentivise or motivate them to want to do this on their own?
LISA: So, okay, let’s picture your morning list. Like if you were to write the list or have one of them, just pick one of your kids. Like what would be on the list?
REENA: Hygiene, right? Like going to the bathroom, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, making your bed, getting breakfast, and then putting those dishes away, right?
LISA: So, you make that list.
LISA: And you post it on your fridge. Like this is your morning list, these are all the things you do in the morning before you can, you know, before you leave the house or before you can watch TV before school, you know, if that’s something your family wants to do, and let’s say they’re not making progress on the list, you know, they’re not doing it, and you say, hey, I’m looking at my clock, you know, you’ve got 10 minutes until you’re out the door. Where are you on your list? I think for a lot of kids that will help, you know, just that kind of prompting of like where are you on your list, right? You’re already getting some distance from this, you’re already getting yourself out of the role of like, I am your reminder. You basically sit there and I will tell you the next thing to do, right, we don’t want to be in that spot, and so then let’s say your kids like, meh, I’m not very far on my list. LIke I’m indifferent to my list. So, then I think you can start to say, well you and I both know you need to get that list done, and you and I both know you have 10 minutes, and again, what you’re trying to do is back out of the role as the one who holds the responsibility for all of this.
REENA: But I still feel I have to nag them to stay on task with the list.
LISA: Wo what happens when you finally do get mad? Does that get them going?
REENA: I raise my voice, they know I’m irritable, I’m very, very high nagging phase at that point, and nobody wins. They’re still dragging their feet about it and we all start our day off in a horrible way okay.
LISA: Okay, so let’s just keep going back and re-playing this and see if we can get it to where we want it to be. So, first you guys make the list and post it on the fridge right. So, now remembering what has to happen in the morning is not your job only. Like it exists where everyone can see it.
LISA: Then you say to them, this all has to get done, I mean in our house it has to get done by 7:25 in the morning, right? To actually make the day work. So you’re like, okay, this has to be done by 7:25. Then, you start to watch the clock. It’s 7:15, they still have three items on the list. So, then you might say, I don’t know if you’re watching the clock but you’ve got several items on the list and you’ve got 10 minutes left. That may do it. Like I would give that a chance to work. Okay, but let’s say they’re like, yeah, yeah. I’m still finishing up this thing. I’ll get to it, right? So then, you have another half step here, which is you can say, you know what? You know me. I’m going to start to get really frustrated with you.
REENA: A warning.
LISA: Yeah. If you don’t get going, this isn’t going to go well, and then I’m going to be all cranky and you’re going to get on all nagged, and we’re going to have a really rough goodbye as you head off to school. I don’t want it to go down that way. I would much prefer you just got going. So, that kind of meta experience, like let’s talk about what’s happening here as opposed to I’m just going to start in on you, and if that doesn’t work, right? I really. I get it, this may not work out. Okay now I’m mad, this is really frustrating and you’ve got to get going and then we’re going to talk tonight about how not to have this happen tomorrow.
REENA: Okay. Oh, interesting. So then you set up a time to say this didn’t go down, you’ve got to get to school, but we’re going to talk about this today and reevaluate.
LISA: Yeah, because this feels miserable for you. It feels miserable for me.
LISA: You know what needs to be done. You know when it needs to be done by. You can tell the time. This is not how I want us to start our days. I think that’s the way to go at it.
REENA: Sometimes I wonder developmentally, my kids are in elementary, am I asking them to do too much? Like when do you know developmentally this is too much for them. I’ve got to hold their hand, and at what point, like okay they reached this age. They’ve got this now. This is just laziness. They need to be restructuring and get on with it.
LISA: I doubt you’re asking them to do too much. Kids can do a huge amount, right? I mean you’re not actually asking them to like cook a three-course meal for breakfast and then clean it up. I mean like realistically, get your cereal, you get something green or fruity. I don’t think it’s that you’re asking them to do too much. I think what’s really hard is it takes time for kids to adapt to the expectations and incorporate the new routines, and we become impatient.
LISA: And so then we just start nagging out of our own impatience as opposed to slowing it down, creating systems and structures, and then continually re-orienting them to the systems and structures that turn it into their job, not ours.
REENA: Do you think there should be different rules for the kids room versus the rest of the house? Because let me tell you, the clutter around the house now, especially where many of us are all still working from home, drives me nuts after all of them are out the door in the morning. It’s me and the dog and all of the debris.
LISA: I’m open to that idea. What do you think? That there’s the stuff you can see and the stuff that they might be able to close their own bedroom door on. What do you think about that ide?
REENA: I just feel I feel better when everything is clean and tidy and in its place and there’s a part of me that’s like, not the psychologist, clearly, but I feel like, oh my gosh. If they don’t know how to put these things away, they’re never going to learn they’re going to be a slob in college and then get married to somebody and continue being a slob, and so I do worry that like this is a life skill they need to master quickly.
LISA: Maybe, right. So here’s the thing that we have to acknowledge, and I am like so 100 percent with you, like my instincts, I keep things really tidy, I really like things orderly and, you know, for me, it’s actually hard to think if there’s a whole lot of clutter around, and yet I have worked with people, I bet you’ve worked with people. I remember this guy I worked with when I was fresh out of college. I had this research grant job for a bunch of developmental pediatricians, it was a great job, and one of these guys had an office that I felt like I was going to break out in hives every time I stepped in his office. There were just piles and piles and piles of research papers everywhere and to me it looked like pure chaos, and then you would say to him like, I’m looking for this particular research paper and he would spin in his chair and go right to the pile that had it and pull it out of the middle of the pile, and I was like that’s really weird. I can’t believe you can do this, but this is how this guy’s mind works, and so it did not seem to be a problem for him. So, as much as instinctively for me and for you that is just like I mean like skin-crawlingly uncomfortable to think about, I do try to acknowledge like other people can function in chaos in ways that I cannot. Like I cannot. So, what I would say is if you have a kid who bends in that direction or they’re like, I don’t know, chaos keeps me lively, keeps it all fresh for me, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to say, I can’t look at your chaos, like you can’t be leaving it everywhere. It can’t be all over the house. How you keep your room, there’s some negotiating, like I can close the door, I don’t have to see it. Where this starts to fall apart is if the way they keep their room starts to create a problem, right? So, for this particular researcher it didn’t seem to be a problem, somehow his mind worked in a way that let him locate all of these items in what looked like chaos to me. When kids’ rooms are messy, it can turn into a problem. They can be unable to find things. They can harm things they don’t mean harm, you know, like something nice gets stuck under a pile and then it’s not so good anymore, you know, gets crushed or whatever and so that’s a place where there may be meaningful consequences for their lackadaisical approach to organization and cleanliness. And here, Reena, I think this is the real challenge as a parent, which is to let the consequences do their work.
REENA: Tell me more about that.
LISA: Well, okay, so this is interesting because it can happen, and it’s funny I was actually just talking with a friend about this, you know, because she’s got kids, I’ve got kids, we were talking about nagging your kids, and she told me the story, she’s got this terrific, really bright girl who forgets things, loses things, and had gotten a nice coat for the holidays, it was a Christmas gift, like this nice new coat, and then it went missing, and they were looking everywhere for this coat, and the family and my friend, to her credit, refused to replace it. She Basically said, you know, this was brand new, this was really nice, you can wear layers, lots of layers, until we find this thing, and it was painful for the kid and the mom, right? To have this kiddo wear lots of layers. And then of course they found the coat when the snow melted. It was outside in the yard under snow, like so Ohio, so Ohio, so every parent.
LISA: But it’s interesting because in thinking about that story I was like, oh that’s so interesting, you know, so often when we’re nagging kids is to prevent what will be a hassle for us, right? If you lose your coat, then either I feel compelled to replace this coat or I have to have these uncomfortable conversations with you every day about what you’re going to do instead of wearing the nice coat that you just got. So, I’m going nag you so that I don’t have to do that, and I think very much to my friend’s credit she was like, you lost your coat, you know, you’ve got to get better at managing your stuff, and I’ve got to let you feel this, even though it makes more work for you and more work for me, and I could actually magically fix this by just getting you a new coat. I’m actually going to let you feel this one, and I’m not going to nag you and every time you walk in the door be like, where’s your coat? Where’s your coat? What’d you do with your coat? So, that, I think that’s like some pretty, you know, stellar and high energy parenting, which we don’t always have at our disposal, but so that’s the other thing I would wonder is when we’re nagging kids, and actually probably a very good example here is their homework, you know, have you started your homework? Did you turn in your homework? Did you give your teacher that thing? That’s a really good example where there are a whole lot of natural consequences that are going to arrive on your child if they don’t do those things, and it is probably worth it, especially in the younger grades, to let that play out.
REENA: Wow, Yeah, and in the fifth grade now the teachers, you know, preparing kids for middle school, are saying, if they forget something, let them suffer the consequences.
REENA: Our son’s teacher said, a lot of parents don’t let the kids suffer the consequences to protect them.
LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And there’s two things I would add on that. One is, if you are, you know, foot on your kid’s neck, like did you do your homework? Where are you with your homework? Have you turned it in? Stuff like that, that’s how they get their work done, you’ve basically signed up for a pretty permanent job, right? I mean you’re stuck then feeling like you have to keep doing that because, especially as they age, the grades matter and you’re not going to suddenly drop them. The other is, and this is incredible to me. Sometimes when I’ve been at schools and I’ve spoken with the kids during the day and then I’m speaking with the parents at night, I will ask kids to fill out on a piece of paper, what is it you want your parents to know? What can I share with them that you wish they knew? And, Reena, it is amazing to me how often kids, especially middle schoolers, have written: let me deal with the consequences of my actions. Kids are asking this.
REENA: Wow. Really?
LISA: Yeah, and so if it’s nagging to prevent your kids from feeling emotional distress about having to go to school and say to a teacher, I didn’t do the work, don’t nag. What does this look like at home? What it looks like at home is, you kno, it’s homework time and your kid is not doing it, and you know it’s a problem, I think you can say, you and I both know it’s homework time. You should be doing your homework, but you don’t seem to be doing your homework. I’m going to bed. Or, you know, I’m going to go watch my show, and then the next day if the kid’s like, oh no, oh no I didn’t do x, y or z, I think that’s when the parent can say, well you’ll deal with your teacher about it, you know, you need to let them know what happened, they’re going to quickly figure it out. Kids won’t do that too many times before they start to fix it, right? Having to go into school and say, I didn’t do it. I don’t have it. It’s pretty painful.
LISA: Let kids feel that pain, especially before high school.
REENA: So, just to recap, Lisa, what really matters when you’re trying to motivate your kid and you want them to take responsibility and not to have to nag? What would you say are the three things we need to do?
LISA: I think the first thing, and it’s interesting because I thought it through as we’ve talked about it, you know we nag for different reasons, right? One is there’s stuff that has to get done in the morning and it just has to get done, or get them in the evening. The other is I don’t want my kid to feel the painful consequence of not doing the thing that I can remind them to do. So, I would actually separate those out. So, the second thing is if it’s like a list thing, like where you’re remembering for them but they really could manage it themselves, make it a list. Make it a third party. Make it a thing that you can point to and say you need to be going doing those things I’m not going to stand here and remind you of each of those things. And then third if it’s a pain prevention thing, right? I’m going to nag you so you don’t go to school without homework, let them feel the pain, and that should quickly put you out of the nagging business, and that is what we want.
REENA: Very interesting. Letting them feel the pain, and also that list. I’m going to try that list because I’ve never done it that way and let’s see how that goes. Very interesting.
LISA: Let us know. Let us know.
REENA: Absolutely. By the way, what age, developmentally, can you rely on them to cook a three course meal? I’d like to know that one too.
LISA: If you find out, you tell me. We are not there. We are not there. But you know what? I will take any kid who can make their own quesadilla. Man, I think that is pretty much crushing it.
REENA: I’m just waiting to get to the, what do you call them? You’re on your own dinner?
LISA: Yoyo dinners.
REENA: Yeah. Yeah.
LISA: Yoyo dinner. Yoyo dinner. Basically feed yourself out of the fridge. It is the best. It is the absolute best.
REENA: I love it. So what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: That phrasing, you and I both know, I think is one of the best phrasings in all of parenting. It actually comes from a psychologist from a long time ago named Haim Ginnott, and it’s really brilliant because he’s basically getting the parents out of the position of saying, it is my job to tell you this thing, and actually putting the parent in the position of saying, I know you know this, which puts the right kind of pressure on kids, which is to basically be motivated by what they themselves know needs to happen.
REENA: That is really, really good, and we should mention next week we’re going to be talking about something you’ve been researching extensively.
LISA: Yeah. We’re going to talk about edibles, a topic that was relatively new to me and one where there’s a lot of parents need to know.
REENA: I have a lot of questions, can’t wait.
LISA: See you next week.