Annie Seo

True Parent 10

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Dangerous Parenting

I’m a divorced working mom, and need every little bit of help I can get. But my eight-year-old son has to be told three times to pick his pajamas off the floor, and by then I’m yelling at him and feeling like a real a-hole. Then when I ask for help with household chores, he whines, moans and wastes so much time, it’s easier just to do it myself. Any tips on how I can turn this behavior around?

—At My Wits’ End

First off, know that you are not alone. Most parents struggle with this (whether they say it or not). The good news is that it can be turned around. Think of it as a three step process: de-stressing, getting focused, and making a plan together.

Start by de-stressing. Everybody gets stressed out. Parents doubly so. Single working parents quadruply so. All that stress puts a parent on edge and makes it hard to manage family problems when they come up. When we’re at our wits’ end with our kids, it’s usually a sign we are at our wits’ end in general, and need to take a deep breath and do something to take care of ourselves. Make that a priority.

Next, get focused. Decide exactly what you want your son to do. Picking his pajamas off the floor is perfect. It’s simple. It’s clear. And you can see if he did or didn’t do it. Make a list of these concrete things. When you have a list, pick three items you want to work on. One that’s easy, another that’s hard, and one that’s somewhere in between. Figure out how often he should do these. Every day? Once a week? Once you know exactly what you want to focus on you’re ready to take the next step, and that’s to get him on board with wanting it too. 

This can seem like the hard part, but it’s often surprisingly easy. This step is all about collaboration. Set aside a time to talk about what both of you want. Make it clear you want his help and need to understand his point of view. What does he think is fair? What chores should he be doing? Try to understand two things from this conversation: what keeps him from helping and what he thinks would work. 

Now it’s time to make a plan together by using the list of three things you made earlier. With his input, revise the list and write it down together. Put it on the fridge. Agree on a reward you’d like to give for doing the things on the list. Keep everything as simple for you as possible (after all, you already have enough to do). Playing his favorite game together before bedtime is the kind of reward you’re aiming for—it’s easy for you, motivating for him, fun for you both, and an encouragement to see if he’s following through each day.

Now comes the hard part: Stick with the plan you both agreed to. This is by far the most difficult part, but it’s what makes or breaks it. If for some reason the plan isn’t working, have another conversation where you change it together. Revise as needed.