Get your child to listen without nagging

You don't always have to repeat what you say a thousand times for your child to listen. With the help of this article, you can learn to get your child listen to you, without nagging.

By Shashwathi Sandeep  • 12 min read

Get your child to listen without nagging

Sunanda Prakash packs a standard lunch of chappathi, veggies and dal for her 12-year-old son Aarav to take to school every day. If she finds the lunch uneaten, she harps on the fact that Aarav does not know or understand the benefits of such a ‘balanced lunch’ and how concerned she is about his nutrition intake. To avoid the ‘lecture’ and recrimination, Aarav runs to the toilet as soon as he gets home and flushes down his lunch. He soon starts getting headaches.

One day, Sunanda catches him in the act of disposing of the food. Fortunately, she realizes that her ‘nagging’ will not work anymore, and works out different food options for her son.

This is a classic example of ‘nagging’. The Oxford dictionary defines ‘nagging’ as: harassing, irritating, niggling, irksome, pesky; keep criticizing somebody; ask somebody repeatedly; be persistently painful or bothersome.

Why nag?

Parents resort to nagging when they feel that their child is not listening to them. “Parents have fixed notions, sometimes unrealistic, about certain matters, and expect their children to listen to them instantly and implicitly. As children, they would have listened to their parents - and now, despite the changing times and culture, they expect the same from their children,” explains S Yamuna, a psychologist from Chennai.

Alternatives to nagging

Nagging gets results, but they are short-lived. Here are some suggestions that work as an alternative to nagging:

Instil a good habit and make that stronger than the bad habit.

Author Sonya Shafer provides a step by step explanation of British educationist Charlotte Mason’s suggested alternatives to nagging:

Choose the ONE habit you want to instil. This should relate to the particular task you want your child to accomplish, without the nagging. Do not try to instil thirty habits, all at the same time, as it is unrealistic.

Choose a time when everyone is calm. Sit down with your child and have a small chat. Explain in detail the particular habit you want him to develop and tell him what the natural benefits of developing that habit will be. Explain that forming a habit takes hard work, but in the end it will be worth it. Assure him that you are confident that he will be able to cultivate this habit and that you will help him when necessary.

The next time you see him in a situation where that habit can be applied, give him some encouragement or a hint, but avoid telling him directly what to do. You want his brain to do the work of initiating the right neuron path and, thus, engrain the new habit a little deeper.

Example: You want Joey to cultivate the habit of hanging his coat in the closet after he takes it off, rather than throwing it on the floor. So you have your little chat with him to explain that this will be the habit he needs to work on and that you will help him. The next time you find Joey's coat on the floor, you call him into the room. Now, your usual tendency would be to say, "Joey, I told you to hang up your coat.” But that is reinforcing the ‘Wait for my parent to tell me what to do’ habit path in the brain.

Therefore, say something like, "I promised I would remind you." You have given him a hint that should start his brain processing as he looks around the room, trying to recall what you were going to remind him of. He sees the coat on the floor, and his brain recalls your little discussion earlier and it initiates the path of "Hang up my coat when I take it off." Success! His brain is starting to form the right neuron connection that will eventually make that action a habit!

The expression matters

Children understand the language of love and appreciate it. Says family counsellor, Cedric Kenny: “Before you speak, breathe in deeply and s-l-o-w-l-y; hold your breath and exhale slowly. Do this several times. This exercise will give your voice warmth and feeling. To listen and follow directions, the child should feel warmth in your voice – not anger, irritation, impatience or sarcasm. Your choice of words must be friendly and pleasant to match the warmth in your voice and tone. Courteous words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ disarm children.

Face your child and speak eye-to-eye with a smile in your voice. To do that, you will have to get physically close to your child – without ‘towering’ over the child. Never shout out Dos-and-Don’ts when you are in the bathroom, or cooking a meal or watching TV or when ‘busy’. Likewise, if the child is pre-occupied in some activity, don’t interrupt abruptly.

Appreciate and acknowledge whatever big and small chores the child does. Never take your child’s good behaviour for granted.”

Avoid vague and ambiguous directions.

‘Your study area is a mess. Go clean your room’ may sound simple to you but it is very confusing for the child. He does not know where to start. Be specific and break up the assignments into small jobs, one at a time. Tell the child to closely follow the steps on how to arrange the study table and be consistent with the steps, or else you will confuse the child. For example:

  1. Where to hang the school bag.
  2. How to arrange stationery articles.
  3. How to arrange textbooks and notebooks into different piles and how to keep reference books separate from class books.
  4. How to look after laptop, mobile phone and other gadgets.

“When the child declares that the job is done, go and check. If something is not done, do not accuse the child of neglect but repeat the missed step so that the child understands and completes the chore. Applaud the child thereafter. Now, explain in detail how clothes must be arranged and kept in the cupboard,” says Cedric.

Use minimum words while speaking. “You want your child to get ready for bed. Do not launch into a ten-minute lecture on the value of sleep, the importance of getting up on time, the fact that Tuesday is a school night, and why you are tired-of-going-through-this-every-night. Limit yourself to a few important words, such as “9 o’clock. Bedtime. Now,” explains Elizabeth.

Use action instead of words and be strict when necessary. Instead of complaining about the pile of dirty clothes in his bedroom, simply pick them up and hand them to your child. Instead of repeatedly asking your child to come to you, go to him, take him by the hand, look him in the eye and say, ‘When I call you, I expect you to come’. “You can give a stronger hint or apply a natural consequence to give him motivation to remember what needs to be done,” says Elizabeth.

Finally, children have a way of becoming what you encourage them to be – not what you nag them to be. So, quit nagging!

Consequences of nagging

Child learns to ignore you. “If you repeat yourself three or four (or twelve) times before you take action, your child will learn that he can safely ignore you the first few times. He has to merely put up with the monotony of listening to your voice,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging, and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate, in an email response.

Nagging strains parent-child relationships. When that ‘together time’ with children is filled with nagging instead of fun and frustration, stress levels rise on both sides. Soon children prefer the company of their peers,” explains Sonya Shafer, author of Smooth and Easy Days, which talks about developing good habits in children without nagging them.

Child begins to lack self-discipline and self-confidence. When a parent takes on all the responsibility – by being the one to constantly remind the child of what needs to be done - the child is left to feel inadequate. He does not learn important life-lessons nor does he experience the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing on his own, something meaningful and difficult.

Child increases dependence on us. “Our goal is that our children will remember and take action on their own, not just when we remind them. Yet nagging results in the contrary and increases their dependence on us,” Sonya says.

Child learns to manipulate people. Cedric Kenny, a family counsellor based in Delhi, believes that when one parent overrules the other in allowing children to have their way, children automatically learn ‘control techniques’ and learn to manipulate people. “For example, 3-year old Johnny is playing with his grandfather. Mother says, ‘Johnny, come to me; it’s bath time.’ Since Johnny is ‘busy’ playing, he hears only a part of the command. While he continues playing, his brain is processing what his mother said. She impatiently repeats her command, thinking that he is ignoring her. Grandfather reprimands the mother not to raise her voice. Johnny is now processing what the grandfather said. While mother and grandfather dig in their heels arguing about behaviour and discipline, bath time has passed and he hears raised voices. Johnny did not take his bath at the first command. Johnny learnt an important lesson: get grown-ups to fight for him.”

A bad habit gets ingrained in the brain. “Nagging is closely related to the matter of habit. A bad habit is formed by repetition. The more a person continues to repeat something, the more it becomes ingrained in the neuron paths of the brain,” says Sonya. Charlotte Mason, a nineteenth century British educator, believed that the bad habit the child gets in the nagging context is ‘to wait for my parent to tell me what to do’.