But we had an agreement! Part II: What to do when kids don’t follow through with agreements (over and over again.)
I regularly turned my head when I passed it to avoid the irritation bubbling in my chest. It’s not that it was smelly or even that gross (although sometimes it was both.) It was simply a daily reminder of what my child didn’t do . . . AGAIN.
Last month I wrote about a very important (and often ignored) step that helps children keep agreements.
This month, I acknowledge that even when this step is taken, even multiple times, children do not always follow through with agreements.
The clumpy, poop-filled litter box in our hallway was a case in point.
Let’s rewind the clock to about two years ago . . .
The girls begged for a cat for months. They meowed at me. They made promises to care for it. They put their commitments in writing, drew up schedules, and posted both in public view.
I knew better, but frankly, I like cats too.
Enter Skylar, a four-month-old tortoiseshell, from the Dublin SPCA.
The girls did a great job divvying up responsibilities from the start. 12 year-old Jenna happily took the job of arranging veterinary visits and scooping the litter box. 8 year-old Cher took on daily feeding with joy.
They followed through beautifully. For about two months.
After that, I had many opportunities to practice the Five Alternatives to Nagging referenced in last month’s newsletter. Simply pointing to an empty food bowl nudged Cher into action.
But the litter box? That was another story.
We brought the problem to a family meeting to get everyone’s help brainstorming solutions.
Our family brainstorming rules are well-known:
- All ideas get written down no matter how bad they seem
- No evaluation whatsoever during brainstorm
We produced this list of ideas:
- Have Jenna and Cher switch jobs
Put Jenna’s toothbrush in the litterbox Dump litter box on Jenna’s floor if she doesn’t scoop it
- Move Jenna’s toothbrush to the bathroom where the litterbox resides so that she sees it every time she brushes her teeth
- Put the litter box in Jenna’s room
As you can see, some ideas were in fact, very bad. During the evaluation phase (but not before!), we asked the family, “Are any of these ideas unreasonable or disrespectful?” Ideas like, “Put Jenna’s toothbrush in the litter box” and “Dump litter box on Jenna’s floor” are both unreasonable and disrespectful so they got crossed off. Then we voted on what was left (in our family, every person gets two votes to spread any way they want).
“Move Jenna’s toothbrush to the bathroom where the litterbox resides” won, so we decided to try it out.
Two weeks later, we follow-up with, “how’s it working?” I already knew that it wasn’t, but the question gave Jenna the opportunity to share why: “the litter spills all over the floor and feels yucky on my bare feet while brushing my teeth.”
A reasonable complaint. And therefore, joint problem solving commenced anew. (She confirmed that scooping the box was a job she was willing to do.)
The results from Round 2:
- Put reminder note on J’s toothbrush
- Put a schedule on Jenna’s wall
- Put box in green bathroom
- Set daily alarm on Jenna’s phone at 7am as reminder
Put all toothbrushes in the litterbox
Once again, we eliminated ideas that were disrespectful or unreasonable and this time the phone alarm idea won so Jenna created a repeating reminder on her phone.
A month later, we followed up again to see how the solution was working.
And thus, Round 3 of joint problem solving commenced! Not necessarily with smiles, mind you. Both Jenna and the rest of the family were irritated to be talking about the topic again. The irritation sped up the process, however!
Our Round 3 results:
- Put litter box right outside Jenna’s bedroom door
- Set phone alarm for 8:15pm, a better time for Jenna
Dump litter onto J’s floor when it gets messy
- Block J’s door with box of litter when someone notices the need for scooping
- Create an incentive system
At this point, we stopped voting and just asked Jenna what she thought would work for her. She chose the 8:15pm alarm which worked better, but still not as consistently as I would have liked.
Over the next few months we did one or two more problem-solving rounds; and while continually coming back to the same problem bugged the crap out of me, the kids did get really good at brainstorming! The family never ceases to amaze me with their creative ideas.
Our current solution: the litter box is right outside Jenna’s door, inside a big plastic storage bin, on top of a litter-catching mat, with the scoop and bags nearby for easy access. Jenna must pass the box before entering or after exiting her room.
When someone (usually me) notices that the box needs scooping, they put the litter shovel right outside her door. This solution, while not ideal for me because I still have to do something to trigger the scooping, works about 80% of the time. That’s about a 60 point improvement. I’ll take it. Just a simple unavoidable visual reminder usually does the trick.
Full disclosure: I still use the other Alternatives to Nagging, too.
Now I don’t want you to think that your own child’s issues will require five problem solving sessions over the course of a year. Often, the first solution works beautifully, at least for a good while, and the family moves on. Here’s an example of when it did.
But sometimes finding a solution that really works does take multiple rounds of brainstorm -> follow-up -> brainstorm -> follow-up. Don’t be discouraged! This process is not just about finding a solution, it’s also about teaching and practicing problem-solving and communication skills that your children will need in many other situations long term.
Now, if you’ve tried multiple problem-solving rounds including follow-up, practiced the 5 alternatives to nagging, and your child is still not following through with the agreement, it’s time to get curious about what’s getting in the way.
Here are some common culprits:
1. Relationship needs strengthening. When children feel unconditionally loved, valued, and connected to you, they are simply more open to your influence. So ask yourself: “Does my relationship need strengthening? Do I regularly listen, play, and have fun with my child?” If not, this is a great place to start.
2. Lagging or lacking skills. Sometimes the reason children don’t follow-through is simply because they can’t – they haven’t yet developed the skills required for success. So ask yourself:
- Is the solution appropriate for my child’s developmental stage and abilities?
- Do I need to take time to train or teach?
- Do I need to break the task down into more manageable chunks so that my child can experience success?
- Does my child have an undiagnosed (or diagnosed) limitation?
3. The agreement was not mutual. Parents deceive themselves when they make edicts and call them agreements.
4. A Mistaken Goal behind the behavior. When you understand what your child seeks with their behavior (Attention, Power, Revenge, or Avoidance/Competence), you can more easily find effective solutions. Learn more about the Mistaken Goals of Behavior here.
I always appreciate hearing from you; please leave your comments below.
I’ll be sharing more on mistaken goals, agreements, and how to get short-term cooperation and teach long-term life skills (and much more) in my Peaceful Parents, Cooperative Kids series offered several times each year.
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