As I have mentioned, I started off my parenting career frequently irritated, baffled and exasperated. I did not understand how little brains worked. I wanted to just say, “Put on your shoes” or “Time for bed” and receive a happy, “Okay!” as a reply. Of course, this is not how children work. The more I read about parenting, experimented with different techniques, and sought to understand children’s motivations and needs, the more I realized they respond well to what I call “the song and dance.”
The song and dance is anything you do that is fun, silly, funny, or crazy that motivates children to do what you want them to do. They get interested in what you are doing and distracted enough to not realize they are obeying. The thing about kids is, you never know what to expect. At times they are cooperative and compliant: they will do what you ask without a fuss or complaint. When this happens, say a quick prayer of thanks and move on with your day! But there are other times (all too often!) when they don’t follow instructions, and they need a little motivation.
As I have mentioned, I try to avoid any type of bribery to motivate kids for chores or other activities that have to be done on a continual basis. Getting dressed, eating meals, completing chores, and other daily or weekly tasks need to be done without external prizes or motivators. But what else are you to do? What other tools do you have? You say, “Get dressed,” and they don’t – what choices do parents have besides saying it louder (yelling), giving a lecture about obedience, or bribing them into it? This is where the song and dance comes in! You can find creative, fun ways to encourage compliance.
I’m not saying you have to do this. If you are not up for the song and dance, the other option is to continue to guide the child, direct them with what to do, and stay calm and kind. This is difficult because your patience can wear thin and frustrations mount as you stay with your child and observe them disobeying. But, consider it a challenge to stay calm (see Practice Patience for some tips), and stay with or close by the child until the task is completed.
On the other hand, the song and dance can be a great way to motivate, and at the end of the task everyone is usually in a good mood! It’s hard, though, because the song and dance takes emotional energy. It requires you to rise above the melancholy and grumpy atmosphere your child is creating. Their ornery, defiant attitude can bring the whole house down. But think of yourself as the sun, rising above those dark clouds, shining so brightly that you can dispel any grouchiness!
The idea is to make the task fun and create a situation where they want to comply. Here are some examples:
“You pick up the blue blocks; I’ll get the red ones.”
“Let’s each pick up ten things.”
“You get two points for every stuffed animal that makes it in the toy box!”
“Can you be faster than Superman?!”
“Should we hop like a bunny or tip toe like a mouse to the bathroom?”
“Let’s be the clean-up fairies and then tell dad we don’t know who cleaned this room!”
When the child is unloading the dishwasher, she can create a king’s palace with the dishes.
When she is helping you make dinner, you can be stirring a witch’s brew.
You can pretend the spots on the mirror and bathroom counter are the bad guys, and you need to wipe them away to save the town.
Children love to pretend, so any pretend scenario you can come up with will help them get going. The more elaborate the better! Or try to create a way that the task can be made into a game.
Another wonderful tool to encourage compliance is teaching the child about something in their world. There are teaching moments all around: How does the oven work? How do our bodies heal from hurts? How did these rocks get here? Where does the fabric for our shirts come from? Most explanations to these questions are simple and on their level, but you can still teach them something about how things work, and get them to cooperate along the way.
One time my daughter didn’t want to buckle her seatbelt. While I did it for her, I asked, “Have you ever heard of crash test dummies?” She hadn’t. I said, “When companies make cars they want them to be safe, so they test them out by crashing them into walls! They can’t have people in them, of course, so they created crash test dummies. . .” I continued to talk about how the dummies fared when buckled in and not buckled in. I didn’t say this in a scary way, to frighten her into staying buckled, but more in an informative way, to keep her interested and distracted while I buckled her, and also to teach her the benefits of seat belts. I love that magical moment when I find something to teach my children that grabs their attention and helps them comply with my instructions. They love it, too – they are enraptured with this new information! It has to be age-appropriate, of course, so I tweak the story depending on the child. It is a wonderful way to avoid contention (she obeyed while listening to my story), connect with her, and teach her something new!
To get children out of their uncooperative mood sometimes I try story-telling. I’m envious of parents who can come up with their own stories. This is such an amazing skill with so many great benefits: you can entertain and distract your children, bond with them in an enjoyable activity that is available anytime, and help their creativity blossom. I’m not very good at creating stories, so I usually think of movies or books and tell my kids those stories. For example, if kids haven’t seen Mary Poppins or The Jungle Book, those are terrific stories to tell! Bible stories are also very fascinating to kids. I happen to know a lot of Old Testament stories by heart, and my kids love to hear these. Children are immensely interested in stories where the characters’ lives are different from their own. Even adult movies that have a good story can be adapted to kids’ level.
Again, I’m not saying this is easy. It can be very frustrating because sometimes you just want the kid to do the task and not require the song and dance to obey. It takes energy to do the song and dance, and sometimes you are just not up to it. However, using these tricks will help you have a better attitude. It will lift your spirits as well as motivate the children. If you can rise above the gloom and try to get the job done with a little bit of fun, you will bring energy and happiness into the home. I try to view it as a personal challenge – to find the magic “key” that will turn the mood of the house around and get everyone going. It’s easy to see that these techniques might not be the fastest way to get things done. Household tasks would be much more efficient if children would just do what we told them to. These techniques might take a little longer, but everyone will be happier in the end, including you!