Why Reminding Your Child Doesn’t Work

“What is this? You haven’t made your bed yet? I’ve told you three times already! Now get in here and make this bed.”

Nagging. I don’t think anybody enjoys it.

But there’s also its cousin: prodding. Prodding looks something like this: “Don’t forget that you will be reciting your poem at co-op tomorrow. Be sure you study it today so you’ll be ready.” 

Later that day: “Have you studied your poem for tomorrow?” 

The next morning before you leave: “Are you ready to recite your poem? Remember, that’s today. Do you need to study it on the way?”

Now, some of us could argue that those are just reminders, and if we’re honest, we all depend on reminders to some extent. But when they are carried to an extreme, those types of reminders—nagging and prodding—can encourage a habit of laziness. The person you are “reminding” can become dependent on other people to get her up and doing what she’s responsible to do, rather than taking that initiative herself. Such a practice is hardly the recipe for success as an adult. That’s why Charlotte Mason warned us against nagging and prodding and showed us a better way.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that Charlotte Mason was an extremist: “Say something once and once only. Don’t ever say it again.” But, as we discussed last time, that’s not what Charlotte meant. Charlotte was actually trying to warn us against going to an extreme—the extreme of repeating ourselves so often that those reminders turn into nagging and prodding.

The truth is, and Charlotte wrote this, we all prod and we all are prodded by others to some extent. That’s life together; we help each other and remind each other of what is important. 

But, she wrote, 

What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort.

School Education, p. 39

Prodding is like poking. It carries the idea of getting a stationary person up and moving. The problem is when a person habitually depends on someone else to prod them; they don’t get used to putting forth their own effort to think about or initiate their own action in order to fulfill their responsibilities. Such a dependency can form a habit of not doing any task, not doing what is rightly expected of her, unless someone reminds them. 

Charlotte was concerned about that bad habit because it reinforces a weak will. A weak will takes no initiative of its own; it simply does what others tell it or what it feels like doing. A weak will is driven by emotions, rather than responsibility. Our goal, as parents, is to help our children become the best version of themselves that they can possibly be, and a big part of that picture is helping them grow in this aspect of making themselves do what needs to be done even if it’s hard and even if they don’t feel like doing it. That kind of strong will is what is required to succeed in life. 

So how do we encourage them in that growth and avoid nagging and prodding, especially in things like chores and school assignments? 

Let me give you a few ideas, and then we’ll take a look at two stories that walk through how those ideas can be applied effectively. Here are the ideas.

Thorough Training

First, give your child thorough training in the task. Basically any chore or task can be taught to your child in five steps. 

  • Step 1: I do it and you watch me.
  • Step 2: I do it and you help me.
  • Step 3: You do it and I help you. (So now the child takes the lead and asks for your help as needed.)
  • Step 4: You do it and I watch you.
  • Step 5: You do it and I check it.

How long you spend on each step depends on the child and the task you are teaching her, but this is where it all begins. If you’ve been listening to our podcast very long, you are probably familiar with those steps. What I want you to notice is how much of that training process involves your physical presence. I think that is a key. 

Charlotte explained,

At first, a child wants the support of constant supervision, but, by degrees, he is left to do the thing he ought of his own accord.

School Education, p. 108

“The support of constant supervision.” That does not mean nagging after the task is not done or not done right. It means proactively engaging with the child while she is working on the task, teaching and training her “by degrees,” step by step, staying on each step as long as needed until the new task becomes a habit.

I think one of the reasons we end up prodding and nagging is because we don’t spend enough time on Step 4: You do it and I watch you. The thing is, we’re busy. So once they show us that they know how to do the task correctly, we jump to Step 5, assign the task, and walk away. But staying on Step 4 is about more than just making sure your child can do the task; it is also about proactively reinforcing how to do the task in a correct and timely manner until that becomes a habit. Your presence helps your child stay on task. If you walk away too soon, and expect her to do the task without supervision too early in the process, you may be setting yourself up for nagging and prodding reactively.

Yes, it’s going to take more time to practice Step 4 longer, but think of it as an investment in a peaceful home now and raising a responsible adult in the future. 

Regular, Clear Communication

The next idea: engage in regular, clear communication. This is going to look different depending on the age of your child, but the key is to be proactive, rather than reactive. With younger children, preschoolers, for example, you will most likely need to say “It’s time to clean up the toys” every day. Children that young are not yet at the stage developmentally where they can judge the time of day and remember what needs to be done. But proactively directing them in that routine is different from repeating the directive five times in 30 minutes—“clean up the toys, clean up the toys, pick up the toys now, it’s time to pick up the toys”—because they are not obeying. That’s nagging. Do you see the difference? Technically, you’re working on Steps 2 and 3 with younger children.

With older children, no matter where you are in the process, regular, clear communication about the task is vital. Explaining exactly what you expect and why is an important starting point. As you work through the steps, you can ask your child what she thinks is working and not working. Have her evaluate herself and describe what kind of job she thinks she’s doing. Then share what you have noticed. If she has been slipping into depending on your prodding lately, mention that fact and ask what she could do to help her remember for herself. Keep the communication ongoing. Sometimes we assume the child understands exactly what we expect when she really has a different picture in her mind. Regular, clear communication is a helpful, proactive tool in this process.

Consistent Expectations

The third idea is to keep your expectations consistent. If one day you expect things done this way and the next day you expect them done that way, your child is going to have a hard time fulfilling your expectations consistently, because they keep changing. If your child has been doing a certain chore for a while and lately you find yourself “having to” nag, take a moment to consider whether you have been consistent in your expectations all along or if you have let things slide sometimes. We can’t expect consistent effort on the child’s part if we don’t keep our expectations consistent. If things have been slipping, you may need to back up a few steps, go back to constant supervision, and get that habit reestablished. 

Appropriate Consequences

Fourth, use appropriate consequences. They can be good consequences or bad, both are effective, but they should always be either natural consequences or educative—that is, consequences that educate, not just a punishment. The point I want to mention here is that one way you can avoid nagging and prodding is to let a consequence “do the talking” for you. 

If you recall the scenarios that I described at the beginning, consequences could have come into play. In the situation of the child preparing to recite a poem at co-op, a natural consequence could have taken the place of the prodding, again, depending on the child’s age and abilities. A young child would need you to proactively schedule regular times to work on memorizing and reciting the poem for practice. But an older student should take the responsibility for that commitment. You could work with her to help her set up a plan for learning and practicing the poem, but then it should be her responsibility to put the plan into action, not yours.

Charlotte wrote,

We prod them continually and do not let them stand or fall by their own efforts.

School Education, pp. 38, 39

Taking responsibility is an important part of learning. If the student shows up unprepared, a natural consequence would be that she might falter or stumble her way through the recitation. None of us likes to see one of our children put in an uncomfortable situation like that, but it is a natural consequence that could teach an older student a valuable lesson about taking initiative and doing what she knows she ought to do.

In the scenario of the child who was choosing to ignore the reminder to make her bed, an educative consequence might be appropriate. Perhaps she would be required to do the extra work of taking the sheets off, washing and drying them, and putting them back on her bed during her free time. Such a consequence would emphasize that making her bed doesn’t really take long at all. It’s a short task that doesn’t require a huge amount of effort.

Charlotte wrote:

It would be better for boys and girls to suffer the consequences of not doing their work, now and then, than to do it because they are so urged and prodded on all hands that they have no volition in the matter. The more we are prodded the lazier we get, and the less capable of the effort of will which should carry us to, and nearly carry us through, our tasks

School Education, pp. 39, 40

Hopeful, Positive Attitude

The fifth idea is to model a hopeful, positive attitude throughout the process. This is about coming alongside your child and helping her do the hard work of strengthening her will, so she will be able to do the right thing even when it’s hard. Try to think of it not as you against your child, but as you and your child together against the human weaknesses that we all have to battle. 

Now let’s take a look at two stories that Charlotte gave us and see how she applied these ideas. Here are two examples of what they can look like in action.

The first story is of a girl who tends to dawdle when sent to get on her shoes. You’ll find it in Home Education, pages 119–121.

Charlotte first reminded us that working on that habit will require an investment of time and effort:

This inveterate dawdling is a habit to be supplanted only by the contrary habit, and the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through measles.

Then she emphasized the importance of communication:

Having in a few—the fewer the better—earnest words pointed out the miseries that must arise from this fault, and the duty of overcoming it, and having so got the (sadly feeble) will of the child on the side of right-doing, she simply sees that for weeks together the fault does not recur.

How does she do that? By staying on Step #4: You do it and I watch you. The parent’s physical presence is a key here: 

The child goes to dress for a walk; she dreams over the lacing of her boots—the tag in her fingers poised in mid air—but her conscience is awake; she is constrained to look up, and her mother’s eye is upon her, hopeful and expectant. She answers to the rein and goes on; midway, in the lacing of the second boot, there is another pause, shorter this time; again she looks up, and again she goes on. The pauses become fewer day by day, the efforts steadier, the immature young will is being strengthened, the habit of prompt action acquired. After that first talk, the mother would do well to refrain from one more word on the subject; the eye (expectant, not reproachful), and, where the child is far gone in a dream, the lightest possible touch, are the only effectual instruments.

So no nagging, no prodding, but giving your full attention with an attitude of hopeful expectation. Did you notice that? Now listen to how Charlotte described a great way to phase out your physical presence once the habit is established:

By-and-by, . .

Remember, it’s a process. Don’t get in a hurry. And communication is going to come back into play at this step.

By-and-by, ‘Do you think you can get ready in five minutes to-day without me?’ ‘Oh yes, mother.’ ‘Do not say “yes” unless you are quite sure.’ ‘I will try.’ And she tries, and succeeds.

See how you can gradually replace your physical presence with a time limit. But we’re not finished yet. Now we need to remember to keep our expectations consistent, especially at this stage in the process. 

Charlotte wrote,

Now, the mother will be tempted to relax her efforts—to overlook a little dawdling because the dear child has been trying so hard. This is absolutely fatal. The fact is, that the dawdling habit has made an appreciable record in the very substance of the child’s brain. During the weeks of cure new growth has been obliterating the old track, and the track of a new habit is being formed. To permit any reversion to the old bad habit is to let go all this gain. To form a good habit is the work of a few weeks; to guard it is a work of incessant, but by no means anxious care.

Watchfulness is necessary, but not anxiety. Just consistency.  

Charlotte wrapped up this story with a word about consequences:

One word more,—prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure, time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without any words) as a right.

All of these ideas are involved: thorough training—in this example the story starts at Step 4; the parent has already taught her child how to put on her shoes; good communication is involved; consistent expectations; appropriate consequences; and a hopeful, positive attitude. 

Here’s one more story that involves those same ideas but with a different scenario. You can find this one in Home Education, pages 122–124. 

In this story the parent wants the child to learn a new habit of closing the door behind him, both when entering a room and when leaving it. Just to set the stage a bit, remember that Charlotte lived in Victorian times, and houses in Victorian times had a fireplace in most rooms as well as doors on those rooms. Shutting the door was important to keep the heat in; it was a courtesy to others who might be sitting in that room. So do you have the mental picture? OK, let’s see how those ideas are applied in this situation. 

It starts with communication.

‘Johnny,’ she says, in a bright, friendly voice, ‘I want you to remember something with all your might: never go into or out of a room in which anybody is sitting without shutting the door.’
‘But if I forget, mother?’
‘I will try to remind you.’
‘But perhaps I shall be in a great hurry.’
‘You must always make time to do that.’
‘But why, mother?’
‘Because it is not polite to the people in the room to make them uncomfortable.’
‘But if I am going out again that very minute?’
‘Still, shut the door, when you come in; you can open it again to go out. Do you think you can remember?’
‘I’ll try, mother.’
‘Very well; I shall watch to see how few “forgets” you make.’

There’s a brief conversation that makes it crystal clear what the habit is that needs to be worked on, why we’re working on it, and what it should look like. Let’s read on and you’ll see how the parent uses communication effectively without nagging or prodding. 

For two or three times Johnny remembers; and then, he is off like a shot and half-way downstairs before his mother has time to call him back. She does not cry out, ‘Johnny, come back and shut the door!’ because she knows that a summons of that kind is exasperating to big or little. She goes to the door, and calls pleasantly, ‘Johnny!’ Johnny has forgotten all about the door; he wonders what his mother wants, and, stirred by curiosity, comes back, to find her seated and employed as before. She looks up, glances at the door, and says, ‘I said I should try to remind you.’ ‘Oh, I forgot,’ says Johnny, put upon his honour; and he shuts the door that time, and the next, and the next.

Notice how the mother doesn’t say what to do. She puts that responsibility on Johnny, because they have already had that little talk and he knows what habit they are working on. If he needs a reminder, she just glances at the door. She’s on Step 4: You do it and I watch you. And little Johnny is going to need to stay on this step for a while to get the habit engrained. But Charlotte pointed out that two things are crucial to remember during this part of the process:

But the little fellow has really not much power to recollect, and the mother will have to adopt various little devices to remind him; but of two things she will be careful—that he never slips off without shutting the door, and that she never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his.

Two things: consistent expectations—shut the door every time—and that hopeful, positive attitude that is so important.

Now Charlotte continued, just as she did in the story about the girl putting on her shoes, to remind us that even after the habit is engrained, we need to stay watchful and keep those expectations consistent. In this story, Charlotte described the slippery downward slope that can occur when we lower our expectations.

By and by, after, say, twenty shuttings of the door with never an omission, the habit begins to be formed; Johnny shuts the door as a matter of course, and his mother watches him with delight come into a room, shut the door, take something off the table, and go out, again shutting the door.

Now that Johnny always shuts the door, his mother’s joy and triumph begin to be mixed with unreasonable pity. ‘Poor child,’ she says to herself, ‘it is very good of him to take so much pains about a little thing, just because he is bid!’ She thinks that, all the time, the child is making an effort for her sake; losing sight of the fact that the habit has become easy and natural, that, in fact, Johnny shuts the door without knowing that he does so. Now comes the critical moment. Some day Johnny is so taken up with a new delight that the habit, not yet fully formed, loses its hold, and he is half-way downstairs before he thinks of the door. Then he does think of it, with a little prick of conscience, strong enough, not to send him back, but to make him pause a moment to see if his mother will call him back. She has noticed the omission, and is saying to herself, ‘Poor little fellow, he has been very good about it this long time; I’ll let him off this once.’ He, outside, fails to hear his mother’s call, says, to himself—fatal sentence!—’Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ and trots off.

Next time he leaves the door open, but it is not a ‘forget.’ His mother calls him back in a rather feeble way. His quick ear catches the weakness of her tone, and, without coming back, he cries, ‘Oh, mother, I’m in such a hurry,’ and she says no more, but lets him off. Again he rushes in, leaving the door wide open. ‘Johnny!’—in a warning voice. ‘I’m going out again just in a minute, mother,’ and after ten minutes’ rummaging he does go out, and forgets to shut the door. The mother’s mis-timed easiness has lost for her every foot of the ground she had gained.

So, to avoid nagging and prodding the things to keep in mind are (1) to give thorough training—which requires your physical presence for most of the steps; (2) to engage in good communication throughout the process—not long and drawn out, but clear and concise; (3) to keep your expectations consistent—especially when it seems like the habit is beginning to stick; (4) to use appropriate consequences—natural or educative, good or bad; and (5) to model a hopeful, positive attitude—coming alongside your child as her ally to help her learn how to strengthen her own will enough to take the initiative and do what she knows is right even when it’s hard.

It’s not a quick fix. It’s a process. There will be ups and downs along the way. You will make some mistakes; so will your child. But if you keep your heart focused on these ideas, I think you will see happy results.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I wish I had known about this method of training back when my children were young. I didn’t know how to teach them in this way and ended up making the same mistakes my parents did with me, mistakes for which I continue to bear the consequences. Perhaps there is still a chance for some good habit training even though they are older and still at home.

  2. I am just learning about Charlotte Mason and habit training – with 4 children ages 9-16. The younger two are eager (for the most part) and respond well to forming new habits or breaking bad ones. The older two girls, ages 14 & 16, are very resistive to establishing new habits. I know hope is not lost! But do you have any episodes on walking alongside teenagers and habit training? Especially when it’s a newer concept for the family? I am eager to learn and grow in this area. Thank you!

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