Getting our children to listen (at all – forget about the first time) is one of the most frustrating parts of parenting.

The seemingly simple requests to come to supper, pick up their towel, go to bed, feed the cat are ignored as if we’ve asked in a new unintelligible language.

So, we nag, cajole, repeat, and perhaps even end up shouting as our words go unheard and unheeded. Our adrenaline builds as we remind ourselves that we are only trying to do our job – teach our children good habits, keep them safe and just get stuff done.

Deep down we know that the shouting and nagging aren’t going to change habits and that these reactions are not helpful in building warm, respectful, and connected relationships with our kids. Yet it’s all we can come up with in the moment and so often we’re left feeling guilty and disappointed in ourselves.

There must be a better way… and there is!

It starts with where we put our attention and what words we use.  What we chose to notice and what we chose to say have the power to positively transform our kids’ motivation to cooperate while improving our relationship.

We all fall into the habit of giving our children attention by pointing out the things they get wrong while we’re trying to help them get things right.  So, it’s not at all surprising that they then get used to seeking our attention (which is what they’re after) through repeating their mistakes.

What happens instead if we notice and point out all the things, they get right?

Well, our kids then start trying to get our attention with the behaviour we’re looking for, they then feel good about themselves, they feel worthy and valued, the good behaviour continues – they cooperate – and they feel better about us too!

We point out our kids’ mistakes to help them improve, to teach them, help them avoid upsets or to ‘remind’ them for the umpteenth time how to get stuff right.

We have the best of intentions when we say:

‘Pick up your towel that’s on the floor’,

‘You need to eat your peas,’

‘You spelt that word wrong’.

‘I’ve told you six times to get off that screen. You’ll be tired in the morning’.

‘Hang up that coat!!’

Unfortunately, all our kids hear through our nagging or raised voice is criticism, judgment, blame or worse – shame. They feel they never get anything right, and they simply stop trying.

Research shows that kids hear 432 negatives to 32 positive comments every day. That is 13 times more!  It may not always be harsh criticism but if they’re met at every turn with advice (however well-meaning), attempts to fix, improve, or change, their self-esteem is likely to take a knocking and so does their motivation to cooperate.  And perhaps worse of all, our relationship suffers, and they’re less likely to feel warmth and safety. They’re less likely to share their problems, seek advice and open themselves up to learning through collaborative, supportive problem-solving.  We need to build them up rather than wear them down. `

Here are five strategies that help motivate our children into good behaviours while building their self-esteem as we stay connected, calm, and remain compassionately and confidently in charge:

1. Notice and mention ALL the things they get right. Children are more resilient, they behave better and develop a strong feeling of self-worth when they hear they are getting things right, that we approve and when they know exactly what behaviour is expected. We call this ‘Descriptive Praise’. Children are wired to seek our attention and our approval although it may not always feel like it!  When we give positive attention for positive behaviour, we get more of what we’re after.  It might sound like this:

‘You remembered to empty the dishwasher before making lunch.’

‘You spelt 5 out of 6 words correctly in that sentence. That’s a super improvement. Can the find the one that needs your help?’’

‘You’ve put all your laundry in the basket. Where does that basket need to go now?’

‘You started putting that Lego back even before I asked you. That is being really helpful.”

2. Empathize. Our kids need to feel validated, heard and understood.  So often our children find it difficult to cooperate and do the right thing because they’re flooded with big emotions. When our kids know that we want to understand the big feelings behind their behaviour and we can help them normalize these feelings, it builds safety, security and trust.

Their behaviour is a form of communication, and validating feelings is an important part of helping our kids process and manage big emotions rather than feeling overwhelmed by them. It’s our job to help them get back to a calm place and so they can start to problem solve.  It might sound like this:

‘I’m wondering whether you spoke to me like that because you’re feeling so frustrated with all this homework. It’s tough moving up a year and sometimes you might feel it’s all too much.’ ‘It’s hard when your sister has a birthday party and gets all the attention… and the presents. Your birthday feels so far away!’

3. Use Intentional Language. We are our word. We can avoid nagging and repeating if we use confident but respectful and positive statements and stay away from requests:  No repeating, pleading, or bribing but respectfully stating the facts with the understanding that your child can and will do what you have asked.  Starting with descriptive praise and empathising with how hard it might be will help.

‘It’s time for your bath’.

‘The dishwasher needs emptying’.

‘Teeth brushed and then the story that you chose’.

4. Give choices (that you can live with). A lack of cooperation is often the behaviour that we see when our kids feel they have no control. No one likes to feel powerless. Giving choices builds confidence and gives children an empowering feeling of responsibility. It helps our kids feel valued which builds self-esteem.

‘When you’ve finished your worksheet, you can both decide whether we have our snacks here or as a picnic under the tent in the playroom’.

‘When we get upstairs and you’re ready would you rather have your story before, in or after the bath!?’

‘Tomorrow for breakfast would you like porridge with honey or toast with that yummy jam. You can choose’.

‘I don’t mind when you tidy your room. We decided that it would be any time before Friday pizza night, didn’t we?’

5. Use ‘I’ rather than ‘You’ statements. This non-directive technique can help keep us confidently in charge rather than tipping over into exerting control. When we feel controlled, we get defensive or resentful and much less motivated to cooperate. Rather than ‘you didn’t text me to tell me you were going to be late’ try ‘I felt worried when you didn’t text me to tell me you would be late.’  Or ‘I’m worried that we won’t have time for a story tonight if you don’t get in the bath now. Which one were we going to read?”

We have the choice of what we notice and how we respond to our kids. When we can shift our focus to pointing out all the things our children get right, when we show that we’re listening and trying to understanding their big feelings, when we respectfully engage them by giving them choices and remain confidently expectant of their success, we are building their self-esteem, motivation, and a desire to cooperate.  Give it a try.

If you would like a FULL toolbox of practical skills and strategies to help you parent calmly, effectively, and confidently, get in touch and I would love to help.

This article was written by Heather Rutherford,  a parenting coach. Heather empowers parents to approach the inevitable juggle of family life with confidence, calm, compassion and consistency to raise happy resilient kids. Read more of Heather’s articles or get in touch via her profile page.