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How to complain so your kids will listen

Whether it’s “Put those toys away,” “Turn off the TV,” or “Take your sister’s underwear off the puppy,” a big part of any parent’s job is telling your kids what to do. The hard truth? They don’t always listen. And that’s usually when all hell breaks loose, along with a whole lot of complaining.

“Those toys are still out?”

“Your dinner’s getting cold!”

“Puppies don’t wear underwear!”

Here’s the sad, straight story: The complaints we voice to our children are just like those we voice to our spouses, colleagues, and to customer service representatives – and they rarely get us the result we want.

Yet, most of us give so little thought to how we complain, we don’t even notice! Instead we just repeat ourselves again (and again). And when that doesn’t work, we either give up or we just do whatever it is ourselves.

Here’s the good news: A few simple changes in how we complain are all it takes to make our complaints more productive and get our kids to respond. Here are five dos and don’ts to keep in mind:

1. Don’t compete with screens, music, or games: Kids are usually engrossed in whatever they’re doing. When they’re busy watching TV or playing, they might say “um-hmm” or “okay,” but that doesn’t mean they actually heard what we said. To make sure you get their full attention, ask them to stop what they’re doing before you voice your complaint. If they respond to your request with “just a minute,” insist they use the ‘pause’ button or put down the toy.

2. Make eye contact: Children take us more seriously when we look them in the eye (adults too, for that matter). Looking someone in the eye conveys I mean business! So the second thing we should say before we complain is, “Please look at me when I talk to you.” With preschool kids, being at their eye level works best, so bending or crouching is required.

3. Don’t raise your voice: Tempting as it is to raise our voice when we’re tired or frustrated or both, shouting won’t make our complaints more productive. Here’s why: Yelling might seem like it gets kids to pay attention, but what they pay attention to is the fact that we’re yelling, not our actual message. The front-page headline they hear is, “MOMMY IS UPSET!!” Meanwhile, our actual complaint, “Mommy wanted me to put my toys away and I forgot,” becomes a minor detail that gets quickly forgotten. The calmer you are, the clearer your message will be.

4. Rhetorical questions don’t work: Sometimes sheer exasperation has us saying things like, “How many times do I have to call you to dinner?” or, “Do I have to do everything around here?” even though we teach our kids not to respond to rhetorical questions. Instead of wasting your energy on rhetorical complaints, use simple directives such as, “Please stop what you’re doing right away and come to the table,” or, “Please put these toys away now.”

5. Avoid the complaint drive-by. One of the most common mistakes we make is to complain to our kids and move on without waiting for them to respond. If we want our kids to take our complaints seriously, we should make sure they respond the first time. For example, “I asked you to come to dinner a few minutes ago and I won’t ask you twice.” Then wait for them to get up and go to the kitchen. If they dilly-dally, say, “Now, please. I’m waiting.”

As a general rule, complaints to your kids should represent their last warning before you take action or apply a consequence. Being consistent, complaining productively, and then taking action if you don’t get the response you want will contribute toward creating a calmer, happier, and more smoothly running household. So make every complaint count!

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