Picture this: Seven Year Old comes in from school. He’s hot. His baby sister has been crying the whole ride home from school because she hates her car seat. Mama is tired too, and as they stumble in from school, Seven Year Old kicks off his shoes in the doorway. He is so happy to be home. He is so happy to take off his sweaty sneakers. He is ready to play Legos. But Mama sighs. She has already asked him about one hundred times to place his shoes in the basket in the entryway. Baby sister trips over the shoes in the doorway and starts to cry, again. Mama asks Seven Year Old to move the shoes. She reminds him again. She warns him he has one minute to put them away. But he is already immersed in his Legos and doesn’t even hear the fourteen requests.
See, the clinical finding is that excessive reminders – be they pleas, instructions, reprimands, updates, warnings, or nagging – make the desired behavior less likely to occur. That’s right: saying something fifty times does not make it fifty times more likely to occur.
In fact, it makes it way less likely to occur.
When you say it once, and it doesn’t lead to the desired behavior, then the effectiveness of what you said diminishes. The next time you say it, it’s even less effective, and the chance that your child will do what you ask is further reduced.
Typically at this point, the parent starts to get frustrated. Their statements get stronger. Strong statements made with lots of intensity are aversive, like punishment.
The child then escapes further – mentally or physically – from the person giving the reminders.
In turn, the non-response from the child makes the parent even more frustrated, and the cycle continues…
It is guaranteed to fail.
Do you see how, in the sketch of Seven Year Old and his Mama, they are in completely different worlds? She is worried about a clean house and a million other things – he is hot and happy to be home and ready to play Legos.
His Mama, the adult with the deeper responsibility to effectively co-regulate, needs to come into his world for a moment.
What might happen if, while they are on the porch, they take a minute to talk about their days? What if the Mama asks the Seven Year Old what he wants to do this afternoon? What if they decide to take off their shoes together, put them in the basket, have a popsicle, and build a Lego house together, if only for a few minutes?
This kind of structure promotes co-regulation: it offers both child and adult a chance to get into each other’s lives and feel each other’s perspectives.
It’s not easy, and it takes both practice and planning. It takes pushing aside the other million things tugging on your attention. It takes deciding to immerse yourself in your child’s world for a moment. But it will change your relationship with your child, and with yourself.
After all, who enjoys asking their children to follow the directions four thousand times, especially when they never ever follow them?