09 Jun

But we had an agreement! What to do when children don’t follow through

Alarm clock

I’m inspired to write about agreements today because so many of my clients are surprised and even hurt when their children don’t keep them.

Here’s a common scenario:

You respectfully ask your child for their ideas to make mornings go more smoothly.

Your child suggests you get them a new alarm clock so they can get up on their own.

You agree that this is a good solution, so you make an agreement that you’ll help your child set the alarm the night before, and it’s your child’s job to get up on their own.

The very next morning, your child turns off the alarm and goes back to bed.

You open the bedroom door a few minutes later, and proceed to lecture, “Get UP! We made an agreement! I got the clock and help you set it, and it’s your job to follow through on your part. Why is this so hard for you? I guess I can’t count on you for anything. You’re going to lose your screen time today unless you get up RIGHT NOW!”

If you are the child who invested the time to brainstorm solutions and make an agreement, then you fail and get dumped on by your parents, how motivated are you to keep trying? Probably not very.

If you’ve taken a Positive Discipline class with me, then you know all about how to involve your children in finding solutions to behavior or other problems. Asking children for their ideas about how to get to school on time, remember to turn in homework, how to make the bedtime routine go more smoothly, etc. can make all the difference because “the brain likes its own ideas best.” (David Rock, The NeuroLeadership Institute.)

When children help find solutions, they are simply more likely to follow through because they’ve been given trust (by simply asking for their ideas, we are communicating our belief in their ability to find solutions) and autonomy (a sense of self-determination and control). In addition, their own ideas simply make more sense to them.

The result of joint problem solving done well is an agreement that both parties can live with, and are willing to try for a while.

What I notice, however, is that parents expect the agreement to be held, by both parties, without any hiccups.

It’s true that children are much more likely to hold agreements when they are involved in the process of coming up with them.

However, we shouldn’t be surprised when children forget or challenge the agreement. It’s hard to change behavior — our kids’ and our own! (How long have I been trying to avoid sugar? Years, people.)

And truth be told, sometimes it’s the parents who fail to follow through!

So after you make an agreement with your child, don’t forget this very important step: Follow up! Set a date to review how the agreement is going. Write that date in your calendar. And then follow through with your review.

The follow-up might sound something like this:

“Hey Aishah, it’s been a week since we tried out the alarm clock idea. How’s it working for you?” or

“Hey Aishah, it’s been a week since we tried out the alarm clock idea. Is there anything we could change to make this idea work better?”

Then you might agree on some changes, and once again you must set a date to review how the new changes are working. If you’re the one who’s failed to follow through, apologize and recommit.

It may take several rounds of joint problem solving before you find a solution that consistently works. It’s a process. Behavior change takes practice. And with practice comes learning and progress (rarely perfection.)

What is your child learning?

  • I can take responsibility for problems
  • I can look for solutions rather than blame others or hide
  • It takes practice and work to fulfill agreements
  • I can listen, communicate, and compromise
  • I can learn from mistakes and try again
  • My parents have faith in my ability to solve problems
  • I can learn about myself, and what helps me be successful

While waiting for your review date, you might be tempted to lecture, threaten, take away privileges, rescue or nag your child.

Here are five things you can do instead:

KISS – Rather than go on and on with a lecture, Keep It Short and Simple: “We agreed you’d get up when the alarm rang. I trust you to follow through.”

ASK – Simply ask, “What was / Do you remember our agreement?”

ACT – Use nonverbal communication. E.g., point to a clock, yawn and stretch.

WRITE – Write a note: “Good Morning! I’ll see you at 6:30!”

DESCRIBE – Describe what you see/hear without judgment: “The alarm clock is ringing.”

Click here for a handout summarizing these five alternatives to nagging.

You may also choose to agree on what will happen if the solution doesn’t work. “What will we do if the alarm doesn’t work?”

I don’t recommend asking this question the first or even second round of problem solving, because it may send a message to your child that you anticipate failure. Rather, have faith that the solution might work, and give it some time to take hold. (New habits, on average, take 66 days to form according to Christine Carter in The Sweet Spot!)

What if you involve your child in multiple rounds of problem-solving including follow up, practice the 5 alternatives to nagging above, and your child is still not following through? That will be the topic for my next blog (hint: relationship or missing skills may the culprits.)

Until then, good luck! Please let me know how it goes or leave a comment below!

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