How do I motivate my kids without becoming a nag? The key is to make peace with slow progress | Conal Hanna

Sometimes it’s healthier to lower your expectations and remember there’s still so much for them to learn

How can I get my young kids out the door without running late for once?

Dentists recommend brushing children’s teeth for two minutes at a time. Doing my four-year-old son’s can take 20.

If that sounds orally retentive on my part, rest assured very few of the 20 minutes are actually spent brushing. (Truth be told, it’s likely fewer than two.)

Usually there are several minutes of asking, followed by a few gentle reminders, several increasingly terse requests, and then a melange of pleading, bribery and blackmail. By that stage he’s at least in the bathroom.

Approximately three seconds after the toothbrush makes contact with its targets come the questions. Nowhere on the toothpaste tube does it specify that fluoride stimulates curiosity in children’s brains, but I can confirm the correlation.

I can’t be mad at him, of course, because he’s not doing anything naughty. He’s just being a delightfully distracted four-year-old boy with zero concept of time or what it means to be late for work. I envy him, if anything, and don’t want to impinge upon his carefree childhood outlook with my banal adult agenda. It would, however, be nice not to start every day with a dose of frustration mixed with cortisol as we scramble to get to work.

Not long after we had his elder sister, our first, I remember lamenting to a colleague at work about the early wake-up calls. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you’ll be screaming at them to get out the door in no time.” Such was my naivety, I thought this was a joke – that she was referring to the teenage years, and how they grow up so fast. Turns out, not so much.

Of all the least fun parenting roles to play, that of the nagger is surely right up there. Even I hate the sound of my own voice. This cuts to the central irony of parenthood, an activity which expands your very understanding of love, connection and purpose – helping you identify what’s truly important in life – only to simultaneously lump you with such copious quantities of tedious shit that you soon forget all about it. Especially when much of the tedium takes far longer than it needs to!

I’ve seen Bluey, OK. I know it’s the tedium that’s the problem. And when I’m my best parenting self I even have Bandit’s capacity to turn household chores into fun adventures that capture their imagination. But who has the energy for that all the time?

Catching up with my mate Pete at the park later, at least I know I’m not alone. I can tell this because his son is wearing pyjamas. While lamenting our inability to inspire action in our offspring, we marvel at how their preschool teachers somehow make it look so effortless.

“They’re like child whisperers,” suggests Pete, and it’s true. They don’t raise their voice, never seem to nag, and yet somehow they manage to coerce not just one but 20 small children to carry out their wishes.

It’s only later that I decide to stop lamenting and start asking. I decide to wage a war on faffing.

Vicki Schaefer is hardly what you’d consider a drill sergeant. A softly spoken preschool teacher of 22 years, and the creator of Little Wise One, Vicki appears a model of serenity as she goes about her job. Talking to her about parenting is a bit like watching Bluey: soothing and reinvigorating, if capable of provoking mild feelings of shame at my own relative impatience. She is, however, very kind, and willing to share some of her wisdom.

Vicki’s tips for motivating little people into action

  • Eye level is super important. Get down to them – it helps them feel “seen”.

  • Tell them what you want them to do, not what you don’t want. “Put your feet on the ground” instead of “don’t climb on that”.

  • Five words or less works well. “I need you to…”

  • In times of conflict over choices, give them two (no more) options – both that work for you. They feel empowered as the final choice is still theirs.

  • Pause before responding. “Breathe, listen, respond.”

  • Model all behaviours. Children see, hear and copy everything you do.

  • Lastly, speak with love and kindness. Preschoolers have only been on the planet four years which isn’t that long. They might be capable of many things, but we need to remember there’s still so much for them to learn.

I love how practical some of these are. We’re trying them and they do work … sometimes. Our house is not yet a zen temple, but we’re slowly making progress. And we’re OK with that.

For many of us, the early years of parenthood are about making peace with “slowly making progress”. There is value in lowering your expectations of how much you can get done in a day. This has not come naturally – both my wife and I like to be busy. But there are unexpected benefits to leaving more free time. Just yesterday I was asked to pretend I was a zombie and my son, a fellow zombie, had discovered a volcano shooting out brains. I mean, really, can my adult day produce anything better than that worth rushing off for?


Conal Hanna

The GuardianTramp

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