How many reminders have you given your children this week? If your number is in the single digits, just go ahead and close this tab now. For many caregivers, reminders are relentless and can be a huge drain of mental energy. Distinct from admonishments like “no hitting,” reminders are usually related to chores, tasks, or responsibilities like homework. Constantly reminding your kid to take care of things is frustrating precisely because you have already explained that coats need to be hung up, dirty laundry should go in the hamper, and it’s time to put your shoes on. Why, you might wonder, is it still not happening?
Changing your tone or trying a different reminder method can sometimes help, but often the issue is more complex and related to parental expectations and communication strategies.
“There’s no secret sauce to how you’re going to tell your kid to do something that’s going to make them do it,” says Stuart Ablon, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Parenting experts say that having to give your kid excessive reminders — and feeling frustrated about it — is better understood as a sign that your current system isn’t working rather than as a problem in and of itself. Reminders are the part of the iceberg that’s visible above the water, and it’s more important to address what’s underneath.
If you find yourself in reminder hell, here are some expert-recommended strategies to help your family get to a better place.
Make the invisible visible
Kids often have no idea how many things need to happen in a day for a family to function. On top of that, cognitive labor is by definition invisible. A family meeting dedicated to this topic can help illuminate that reality for kids, says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a parenting educator and the author of The Good News About Bad Behavior. Show kids a list of all the things that need to happen in a day or week, Lewis says. Then recruit them to participate.
“Ask them, ‘What are you interested in learning?’” says Lewis. This acknowledges that chores are important life skills, not just unpleasant tasks to be avoided as much as possible.
Writing everything down, using pictures for pre-reading kids, creates an accessible snapshot of what needs to be done before or after school, after dinner, or before bedtime. A chore chart can also be used as a way for every family member to know what needs to happen.
Ideally, says Lewis, a clear system will handle much of the reminding. “You want the routines and structures of the household to remind them,” she says.
Treat nagging as a sign that something isn’t working
Democratizing domestic labor in this way can also prevent a scourge of parental life: nagging. Nagging is best understood as a particular type of urgent reminder that often stems from feeling overtaxed by the mental load, says Kate Mangino, author of the forthcoming book Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home. Nagging has traditionally been associated with mothers, who have borne the brunt of executing domestic decisions, but anyone can nag.
Helping kids understand their role in daily life and creating systems to hold and make invisible labor visible address the conditions that cause nagging in the first place. It’s often a thin line between reminding and nagging, and parents can usually tell when they’ve crossed it. Hearing yourself nag is a sign of frustration, says Ablon. It should alert a parent to a problem with the system.
When you notice yourself starting to badger your offspring, it’s a cue to pause and ask yourself if the expectations you have are clear and fair. Consider whether there’s a better venue to check in on how things are going, like at a family meeting. It’s understandable that a caregiver will be frustrated if an agreed-upon task doesn’t happen, but nagging tends to be the last resort of someone with no other options. Give yourself other options.
Start with problem-solving
Adults often make decisions themselves and only involve kids afterward — and then they expect obedience, says Alfie Kohn, the author of Unconditional Parenting. It’s a recipe for a power struggle.
Instead, caregivers should favor problem-solving. Sit down together when everyone is calm, and first acknowledge feelings (for example, “I saw how annoyed you were when I asked you to hang up your coat”), says Joanna Faber, who co-wrote the book How to Talk When Kids Won’t Listen with Julie King.
After acknowledging their feelings, describe the issue in neutral terms (“The problem is, coats on the floor will get dirty or trip someone”). Solicit potential solutions from everyone (“How can we make it easier to hang up our stuff?”), and write them down, no matter how silly or weird. You’ll vote on them later, so there’s no chance “throw my coat away” will actually be implemented.
Make a plan and then try it out, coming back to problem-solving as a home base when things invariably go off the rails again. That process is at least as important as the outcome, says Ablon. It models collective, thoughtful dispute resolution, which is applicable in many other situations.
When necessary, remind playfully and calmly
Do your best to stay calm when you’re reminding your kid to do something yet again. If you can’t (we’ve all been there), try an approach that doesn’t involve speaking, suggest King and Faber. Notes from objects can be really helpful here — the trash can says, “Please empty me, I’m smelly!” or the coat left on the floor has a sad face because “I’m lost and alone.”
Being playful often goes a long way. This is especially true for younger kids, but older ones appreciate it too. Even adults sometimes need to use strategies like setting a timer or cleaning up to music to get motivated. When all of these fail, it’s a signal that perhaps the routine needs a tweak, expectations aren’t well-matched, or something else is going on.
“Sometimes our kids,” Lewis says, “are human like we are.”
Don’t just tell, teach
Children do well if they can, Ablon says. When things aren’t going well, it’s important to look at whether they’ve been set up for success.
“Kids have a hard time meeting expectations that they don’t know about,” he says, “that are unclear, or that are sort of a moving target.”
In addition, children are “social workers” until about age 8, says Lewis. That means caregivers should expect to do tasks with their kids, rather than giving assignments to be completed independently. Kids older than 8 who are just learning some chores will also need help and teaching in the beginning. Simply reminding them to do a task they can’t handle on their own or don’t feel confident doing yet is a recipe for disaster.
Neurodivergent kids may need more time to learn a task, especially one associated with forward planning or impulse control, a set of skills often referred to as “executive function.” But the truth is that every child is somewhere different on the spectrum of “executive dysfunction,” says Lewis. She recommends parents try to banish the term “should” from their lexicon, as it often causes frustration. In essence, work with the kid you have, not the one the internet checklist says should live with you.
Parents should ask themselves what their long-term goal is for their kids, says Kohn. Often the short-term tactics we use to achieve obedience or compliance are at odds with these goals. If parents want kids to be able to advocate for themselves, for example, we need to expect that they’ll practice on us.
Expect to revisit things
Kids’ development isn’t linear. Just because they dressed themselves once doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it consistently. They can be thrown off their groove by conflict with a friend, increased expectations at school, or a global pandemic.
Reminding is baked into parenting, says Ablon, but the form it takes is up to you. He suggests asking your child, “What’s the best way to remind you so that I’m not annoying you?”
Caregivers should make a plan and “expect it not to work,” he adds. Bring up things that aren’t working at the next family meeting. Revisit the list of potential solutions you created through problem-solving and choose another one to implement, or come up with some new ones. Maybe it’s Alexa, Post-It notes, or a timer.
If you find yourself getting frazzled, keep in mind that adults often have to try out different systems for their own tasks and chores until they settle on the best one.
Caregivers will be way less frustrated, Lewis says, if they can see defiance or a routine falling apart not as a problem but as a signal that “something needs to change.”
“That mindset shift can help us so much,” she says. “This is normal. This is part of childhood.”