Zoned Out Kids

homeschooling-tea partyQuestion:

I am at wit’s end with my daughter. I tell her, remind her, nag her, coax her and still she will not do what I ask. I don’t want to punish her all the time. She seems to turn a deaf ear to me. It is very hard to homeschool when she zones me out. Please help!


I think we all fall into the trap of repeating what doesn’t work with our children. I know I do! Maybe it is easier to nag than to really think through the problem and come up with a solution. But I think we would all agree that most parents nag while knowing that nagging does not work!

I learned an important lesson when studying the American Revolution. When John Adams went as ambassador for the colonies to England’s King George, begging to be recognized and honored in trade with the England, King George turned a deaf ear, and continued to ignore America’s requests for fair trade. The frustrated Adams demanded an answer to why Americans were being mistreated and the representative for England replied, “cui bono?”, the Latin phrase meaning “for whose advantage?” or “who benefits?”. I think our children know this principle all too well! If you ask your daughter to put away her shoes, and you nag and you repeat yourself, consider whom would it benefit if she does what you ask? She doesn’t particularly care whether her shoes are here or there. It is of no consequence to her, and you can wear yourself ragged reminding her.  Your girl will quickly learn to zone you out—no need to listen to information that does not particularly interest or affect you. If you can apply the “who benefits?” principle when you find yourself nagging, it may be simple to find a solution.

Let me give you an example: We do a lot of singing in our family. My daughter Louisa (9) was not singing in church or in family devotional or in homeschool. I tried to say encouraging words, plead with her to cooperate, as well as nag her and feel upset at her for this behavior. I thought up excuses for her: maybe she can’t read as fast as we sing, maybe the tunes are unfamiliar, maybe she is embarrassed to be heard, and so on. It is pretty easy for us mothers to think up lots of reasons to justify poor behavior.

Well, one day, while sitting in church feeling frustrated that she would not even open a hymn book, a thought popped into my mind: “cui bono?”  I came to the rapid, disappointing realization that I was trying once again to make something work (nagging) that has a proven track record of not really working! Whatever circumstances or past experiences had put a bad taste towards singing in Louisa’s mouth, it was time to make it rewarding to sing!

As I sat there, I devised a very simple plan. I got out a piece of paper and folded it so it made 12 boxed sections on the paper. In each box, I drew a circle. At the top of the page, I drew 4 faces: one sad, one neutral, one smiling, and one ecstatically happy with an open grin! Then I whispered to Louisa, “Do you want to play a game and try to get a huge smile on a face?” She smiled and nodded “yes” excitedly, as church could get long for her and a distraction looked fun. I told her there are just 4 rules. If you keep all 4, you will get the very excited happy face. If you keep just one, you will get the sad face, and so forth. Louisa was ready to go!

I wrote down 4 rules on the bottom of the paper:

  1. Open the hymnbook to the right page.
  2. Hold your head up and the book up so your voice goes out in the room
  3. Smile and sing cheerfully
  4. Sing every word in a loud enough voice.

Then at the conclusion, I wrote: “Mom is the final judge–no arguing.”

Wow—all of the sudden it was her idea to sing. When it was time for the next song, Louisa was ready to go! She opened her book to the right page without a whisper from me! She held it up and mumbled but didn’t really accomplish much singing. She got a neutral face in the first box, along with the song title. She was disappointed, but also understood that I was “playing for real”, and it would take following all 4 rules to get the ecstatically happy face that meant she won. She felt some sense of challenge and had her hymnbook ready and waiting when the next song came along. This time she sang quietly and missing some words. She felt shy and self-conscious, but she did it! This time she got a smile, but not a big-huge-open-mouth-grin worthy of all 4 points.

It was her challenge and her game and I didn’t say a word, except to draw the face in and praise her for trying. After a few more songs, I thought I’d better sweeten the deal to keep her motivated and I drew a little formula in the top corner of the paper: 6 big smiley faces = ice cream cone (I drew a cone with a scoop of ice cream on it). Oh, boy! Now she was begging to sing.

Bribery? No. Motivation? Yes. Ice cream is not a part of our daily diet, but nagging shouldn’t be either! It is worth it to me to reward Louisa with an ice cream cone to develop a new habit.

Church ended before she had sung enough songs to earn the ice cream cone, but that didn’t stop her! She had a goal in mind and was highly motivated to earn it. She asked if we could have a Sunday afternoon devotional and she would choose the songs—4 of them! With the 2 huge smiley faces she had already earned in church, she figured 4 more well-sung songs would add up to 6 needed and the promise of an ice cream cone. When I devised the reward, I knew I had ice cream in the freezer but I didn’t dream she’d earn it that very day. So we had our devotional and Louisa sang 4 more songs with all her heart, cheerfully, loudly, and with her book held high. She even got upset if we began the song before she got to the right page, as she had to keep her pledge to “sing every word”.

Cui bono? Who benefits if Louisa sings? Well, before our little game, it did not seem to Louisa’s advantage to sing at all, for whatever reason, and all the (nagging, shaming, critical, pleading, praising or otherwise) words in the world from me only heightened her negative feelings about singing. Once I could see straight, and turn singing into a positive experience for Louisa, she quickly and happily complied, with more thrust than I thought she was capable of!

How does this work in the end? Do I have to keep up a steady diet of ice cream cones for Louisa to sing? Actually, too many ice cream cones and they might lose their appeal, and then what? What generally happens is that as you engineer a positive experience for your child, rewarding her along the way and changing or upping the reward as need be to keep her motivated, she will begin to get her own reasons for singing. She will begin to see it as a fun thing to do because it is enjoyable, or perhaps a way to earn adult approval. Maybe singing will appeal to her for other reasons, her own reasons. She may never like to sing, but might come to the point where she can view it as a means to feel unified with a worshipping group of people. As a parent, we respect our children’s right to choose and their right to be who they are, but we want to train them in ways that have proven to bring us happiness.

Before nagging your child, ask yourself, “cui bono?”. You know what to do next!

May I recommend:

Why Listen?

More Flies With Honey

Big Bear Hugs

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