I see my 9-year-old son Jack race past the kitchen window.
He’s running through the backyard and he’s going about 45 mph. He’s oblivious to the fact that he’s not wearing shoes. No shoes, just socks. I hear you fellow parents sighing along with me.
His socks have a lifespan of about 3 days. They end up with giant holes and need to be replaced. How many times have I said, “Put on your shoes!” What’s a mom to do?
No amount of reminding, dirty looks or nagging can change his utter disregard for his socks. But it’s not an issue of rebellion.
He’s just living by the Puppy Principle.
What’s the Puppy Principle?
If you’ve ever had a new puppy, you’ll find you become automatically and obsessively attuned to how long it’s been since the puppy was outside.
Is the puppy showing signs of having to go?
Has it been more than an hour?
Did he do his business last time he was out?
Puppies are absolutely adorable but you want to prevent their messes at all costs! Avoiding accidents becomes a BIG priority when you’ve got a puppy!
That’s the Puppy Principle.
(Yes, I made up that term.) The idea is that people prioritize things that are important to them. Pretty obvious.
The family members who don’t have to clean up the mess aren’t nearly as concerned about when the puppy last went out. It’s not a priority for them.
So how do I use this to get my kids to listen to me?
The problem with this principle is that no amount of nagging or reminding will truly overcome the Puppy Principle. If something isn’t important, your pleas are probably going to fall on deaf ears. You’re going to have a very hard time convincing a person (child or adult) that something should be important to them.
Duh – how will this help me?
Aha – here’s where it gets interesting.
You can’t overcome the Puppy Principle by nagging.
BUT you can change the situation to get a person to tune in and start caring. Here’s how.
A person has to understand WHY something should be important to them. Why should it matter to my son when he wears holes in his socks? Me telling him over and over again won’t get through.
A person needs a vested interest.
There needs to be a consequence for ignoring whatever issue we’re facing. I’m not necessarily talking about a timeout or other punishment. What I mean is you need to give that person a reason to care. You need to make them responsible for their own “puppies.”
How do you do that?
1. Tell them a story illustrating why your concern should matter to them.
“It’s critical that everyone close the door properly so the dog doesn’t get out and run away. Can you imagine if Scout ran down to the street? We might not find him again.”
If you can frame your story in a way that matters to that person, you’ll get through to him.
If you want them to close the door after themselves, don’t bother telling a story about keeping the electric bill down – most kids could care less about that! But they will see the wisdom in protecting the dog.
2. Sometimes people will care about something solely out of love or concern.
My husband recently worked hard on updating our laundry room. This project wasn’t for him – he didn’t care much about a pretty laundry room. But he did know that I would love it so he made the effort to do it for me.
3. Hand off the responsibility for the mess, metaphorically speaking.
This option is so simple and it works beautifully. Basically you change the situation and give the problem to the person who can do something about it.
Imagine I tell my son that I’m going to buy him 10 pairs of socks.
If he wears through the socks within a certain number of months, he’s going to have to buy replacements with his own money. If he doesn’t have any money, his next allowance payment will go toward socks. Now wearing holes in the socks is HIS problem, not mine!
This approach may not make a difference right away, but once he has to go without allowance, I think he’ll be infinitely more careful with his socks!
And if he doesn’t?
Well, then he can buy the new socks. The best part is that I can stop worrying about the socks! It’s his problem now!
4. For some issues, you might be able to work out a trade.
Maybe your son agrees to let you help him declutter his closet (using the simple framework in this video tutorial). In exchange, you let him stay out an hour later on the weekend. Make sure you both understand the terms of your agreement and have the less motivated person go first.
The job gets done and both of you are satisfied.
Here’s how you can start putting the Puppy Principle to work right away:
- Pick an issue that you’ve found yourself reminding (or nagging) a family member about.
- Figure out which of the above tactics you’ll use (story, love, hand off the problem or trade)
- Make your move and see what happens.
- Be willing to wait a bit until the consequences take effect.
Note: if you choose to hand off the problem, you may get a lot of pushback (meaning your child may accuse you of being the worst mother EVER). Don’t be surprised -you’re still squarely in good mother territory. 🙂
After all, no one likes having new problems, right?
But most problems are best solved by the person who’s directly involved, so stick to your guns.
Why this approach is better than nagging.
No one likes to nag or to be nagged. And putting the Puppy Principle to work is a much more efficient way of solving frustrating issues like this. Plus, it helps develop responsibility in kids.
However, it’s not going to work all the time
Use it judiciously.
Pick your battles and pick them one at a time, especially with kids. Plus, you’ll have to be willing to put up with the consequences. If your kid could care less about wearing holey socks, no amount of responsibility will change that! (Although you can still make him buy the new ones.)
In Summary, to get your kids to listen to you:
1. The Puppy Principle states that people prioritize things that are important to them. The opposite is also true.
2. Don’t try to nag or remind your way around the Puppy Principle.
3. Instead, make them responsible for their own “puppies” using one of the methods above.