Raise your hand if you feel exasperated by your sass-talking kid at least once a day. (My hand is so high up in the air right now I think I might pull a muscle.)
Parenting two opinionated, exuberant and energetic kids can be exhausting and overwhelming on the best of days. And on the worst of days, it can feel like I’m in the eye of a tornado that won’t stop spinning circles around me. There are literal items that get whipped and thrown around my house by my four-year-old son. And my seven-year-old daughter spends half of her waking hours cartwheeling and hand-standing her way from one room to the next.
Meanwhile, as is the case with pretty much every mom everywhere, I feel like all I do is follow them around our home picking up strewn toys and nagging them to clean up after themselves.
The problem is, nagging them to clean up doesn’t work.
It seems no matter how many times I yell, plead, bribe or nag them to tidy their rooms or bring their dishes back into the kitchen, they just don’t do it. More often then not, they ignore my requests and go about their business cartwheeling and playing. Or, and this is the worst, they just say no. That’s it, just NO.
As I sit here and write that out, it actually feels embarrassing.
We’re in a constant power struggle but I don’t want to battle with my children.
Their strong-willed character traits will take them so far in life. I just wish they would put some of that strong will on hold and do what their mom says once in a while.
The reality of the issue is that this feels like it’s all my doing, not theirs.
Yes, children are born will all sorts of character and personality built right into them and, yes, some kids are more easy-going while others are more stubborn (mine fall into the latter category). So much of what’s fun about parenting is watching it all unfold in front of your eyes. Discovering the type of person your kid is shaping up to be is really magical. I truly believe that my job is to guide them to become the best version of themselves they can be.
So when they sass me if I ask them to clean up or, even worse, ignore me, I know I’m not doing my job.
It’s a sign that I haven’t set out clear boundaries with them and they feel entitled to this behaviour. I haven’t properly built helpful and rewarding routines into their day to day lives and far too often, I just fall back into doing it all myself.
To avoid the fight over turning off the tv and forcing them to clean their rooms, I just go clean the rooms. To avoid the backlash of interrupting fort-building and making them bring their dishes into the kitchen, I just pick them up myself.
I should clarify, I don’t do this all the time. Most days, at least once, I force them into helping with the cleanup chores. But it’s always more or less forcing them and very rarely are they willingly helpful with the cleanup duties.
So how did we get here?
Bad habits and unclear boundaries.
Just like anything, good habits and routines require practice. My daughter, who takes gymnastics on Saturday mornings, has gotten so much stronger and stable in her handstands over the last six months because she practices non-stop. And we applaud efforts and dedication to practising, which makes her feel good and motivated to keep it up.
These are the kinds of tactics we need to use to motivate our kids to be more helpful around the house. Instead of always nagging and, yes, even yelling to clean up, we should be using motivating language, words of encouragement, and making cleanup time fun.
“Remember when you put all your laundry away all by yourself last week? That was so awesome and helped mommy and daddy a lot! Think you could do it again?”
Or, “Let’s race to see who can put their laundry in the right drawers fastest, you or me?!” (And then let them win, obviously.)
I know that I respond terribly when I feel I’m being told what to do in a negative or condescending tone. I can’t stand when my husband or employer implies I have slacked off somewhere, even when they’re right. Especially when he’s right. I’m always motivated by positive reinforcement and a sincere acknowledgement of my efforts. That’s just human nature! So why on earth would my kids be any different?
According to Dr. Deborah MacNamara, a clinical counsellor, writer and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a Counselling and Family Resource Center, it absolutely is human nature. Kids have a “counterwill“, or an instinct to resist, counter, and oppose when feel they feel controlled. It’s something we can all feel when someone tells us what to think, do, or feel. The problem for parents is that a child’s lack of experience and maturity makes the resistance stronger.
In our house, we’ve discovered that it really all boils down to building good habits and motivating with kindness instead of anger. Teaching our kids to put the toys away when they are finished playing with them and then high fiving them when they do it. Limiting screen time and rewards until the chores are done and making said chores fun with songs and games always helps, too.
And, as Dr. MacNamara points out, saying sorry when it’s needed. Sometimes, giving one another time and space and then apologizing and telling them that you wish things had gone better works wonders.
We’ve spent several years with less-than-stellar habits, so reversing that is taking some work and a lot of patience. But in the end, what we are experiencing is short-term pain for what will hopefully be a lifetime of gain.
Discipline and good habits don’t just happen.
These things are practised and strengthened with time. And raising little humans is like looking deep into your own reflection and seeing where you fall short. It’s not fair for me to yell at my kids for not cleaning up if I have created an environment where they didn’t realize that was the expectation.
It’s never too late to start, though. Children are sponges and ultimately want to do the right thing. It’s up to us parents to show them what those right things are.