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Don’t keep reminding. Instead, do think-throughs!
How to get more cooperation from your children and teens

As a parenting author, speaker, and coach, I hear every day about the typical worries and frustrations of parents. What really bothers many parents is their children’s lack of cooperation. Parents tell me that they have to repeat their instructions numerous times, and then eventually resort to shouting or bribing or threatening – just to get their children to do what they’re told.

It doesn’t have to be like this!
There is a better way.

In this article I explain a practical and effective strategy, called a ‘think-through’, that guides children and teens into the habit of doing what they’re told the first time they’re told, and with less and less of a fuss.

  1. Why parents need a radical strategy to increase cooperation
  2. The neuroscience behind think-throughs
  3. Using think-throughs to establish rules and routines
  4. When is the best time to do think-throughs?
  5. It only takes 1 minute
  6. Think-through questions
  7. Frequency of think-throughs
  8. Trouble-shooting

1. Why parents need a radical strategy to increase cooperation

Why do parents need a strategy that’s much more effective than reminders and reprimands?

Let’s think for a moment about what typically happens when you remind your children in advance about what they should do in a particular situation that will happen a short time in the future, for example later the same day. The reminder might be about what they should do at drop-off time at school, or when it’s homework time, or what they should do at the end of a playdate, or what they should do when they get upset with their sibling, etc.

We would like to believe that children are paying attention to all our mini-lectures and explanations, and taking it all in, and thinking about it. But often they aren’t even really listening! They’ve heard it all before. It just sounds to them like ‘Blah, blah, blah….’ Often their attention drifts to something more interesting after the first sentence or two of our explanation.

The same applies to reprimands: ‘Blah, blah, blah…’. Children, and many teens, are by definition immature, impulsive, intent on doing what they feel like doing in the moment. It’s going to take something stronger than an after-the-fact lecture to teach and train your children to control themselves when they’re faced with the temptation to do what they feel like doing, or to do what they’re in the habit of doing.

Too often young children, and even many older ones, don’t really understand exactly what you’re getting at when you scold or when you try to explain the reasons why they should or shouldn’t behave a certain way. The reasons you give are usually adult reasons, which don’t mean much to children or teens.

Think-throughs are completely different because instead of you telling your child or teen what she should do, you ask her to tell you. The child is saying what she should do, not you.

Think-throughs aren’t:

Think-throughs are completely different because instead of you telling your child or teen what she should do, you ask her to tell you. The child is saying what she should do, not you.

Think-throughs are:

A think-through is a low-key, friendly, one-minute conversation during which you, the parent, ask a number of questions about what the rule or expectation is, what your child or teen should do, and he or she answers your questions – politely, in full sentences, and with eye contact.

2. The neuroscience behind think-throughs

The effectiveness of think-throughs for improving habits, behaviour, social skills, learning, and even mood is backed up by neuroscience.

Think-throughs prompt children and teens to visualise themselves doing the right thing. That’s because humans think in pictures, and our brains automatically create a mental image of whatever we’re talking about. Unfortunately, our brains don’t automatically create a mental image of what someone else is saying! When you’re reminding (before an event) or reprimanding (after an event), you want or hope or expect that your children are paying attention and storing the information accurately. But often while you’re talking, your children are thinking about Minecraft, or about the giraffe they saw at the zoo last weekend, or wondering what’s for dinner, or wishing their latest post had got more ‘likes’.

The sad truth is that our parental reminders, explanations, warnings, and scoldings are largely wasted on our children, even on pre-teens and teens, because we’re the ones doing the talking. In fact, our well-meant advice is often worse than wasted because an exasperated, lecturing tone turns children off.

Think-throughs are different because you aren’t the one telling your child or teen what he should do. Instead, you ask very specific think-through questions, and as your children answer your questions, they are telling themselves the right thing to do, and they are automatically visualising themselves doing it.

The more often you do think-throughs with your child or teen, the clearer and sharper this mental image will be, and the sooner this mental image will automatically be transferred into your child’s long-term memory. This is where we want the mental image to end up because the long-term memory is the repository of habits.

Ordinarily, what ends up in the long-term memory are actions that we have done hundreds of times. But a few decades ago, brain researchers who were studying professional athletes discovered something remarkable: when a person thinks about and talks about precisely what he should do enough times, the mental image that is automatically created is transferred into the long-term memory exactly as if the person had actually performed those actions numerous times. The scientists discovered that some people need to talk about or think about doing something a certain way only a few times before they see improvements in real time, but most people need more repetitions.

After I read about this research, I decided to experiment. I wanted to see if this simple method of improving performance by visualising doing it correctly would work with other types of actions and habits, not just sports. And I found that it did! This hugely important fact transformed how I taught children when I was a classroom teacher, how I tutored children and teens with special needs, how I coach parents, and how I mentor teachers. Over the years, parents and teachers have used think-throughs to improve children’s and teens’ behaviour, social skills, and learning.

When you ask think-through questions and your child or teen answers, he mentally sees himself doing the right thing. With repetition, the picture he sees in his mind as he answers becomes lodged in his long-term memory just as if he had done that action many times. At that point the mental image functions as a habit, making it easier and easier, when the situation he did think-throughs about is actually happening, for him to do the right thing - instead of screaming ‘No!’, instead of ignoring your instruction, instead of grabbing a toy from a sibling, instead of splashing the bath water on purpose, instead of hiding when it’s time to get dressed, instead of being too rough with the baby, instead of rushing through her homework, instead of coming home after her curfew, instead of swearing when he’s upset, etc, etc.

3. Think-throughs to establish rules and routines

You can use think-throughs to introduce and establish new rules and routines.

Let’s say that you’re fed up with being interrupted. Start by stating the new rule in one sentence. You might say something like ‘The new rule is that when the grown-ups are talking and you want to say something, you need to say ‘’Excuse me’’ and then wait until we stop talking and look at you. That’s how you’ll know it’s your turn to talk’.

Don’t then make the mistake of explaining and justifying your new rule, as that’s likely to annoy you and your child. Kids are smart, and they usually do know why they are supposed to do what you want them to do.

Having said the new rule only once, now you ask some think-through questions:

  • ‘What’s the new rule I just told you?’
  • ‘What should you do, instead of interrupting?
  • ‘When do you need to say ‘’Excuse me’’?’
  • ‘After you say ‘’Excuse me’’, what are the two things you’re waiting for?’

4. The best time to do think-throughs

Don’t do think-throughs after something has just gone wrong, and not when you see or sense trouble brewing. At those times your child or teen is not in the right frame of mind to answer your questions properly, or to answer them at all.

Think-throughs should happen only at neutral times of day. Here’s my definition of a neutral time:

  • Neither you nor your child is in any way preoccupied: not worried or upset, not distracted by thinking about something that will soon be happening, not in a hurry to get somewhere.
  • There’s no screen on anywhere that your child can hear or see and be distracted by.

5. It only takes 1 minute

All think-throughs need to take about one minute, not much more and not much less.

If you do a think-through for less than a minute, your child’s brain is not likely to register it.

If the think-through lasts for much longer than a minute, it may start to feel like an ordeal for you or for your child. Or you may drift into telling and reminding instead of asking, and your child will soon switch off and stop listening carefully; that’s because a parent’s lecturing tone often sounds unpleasant, annoyed, not friendly.

6. Think-through questions

What sorts of think-through questions should you ask?

Do start all your think-through questions with a ‘wh’ word: Who, What, When, Where, Why, or How.

Often, the least useful question to ask is a ‘Why’ question because your child may not really care about your grown-up reasons.

It’s not helpful to ask questions that are vague or general, for example: ‘What should you do when it’s bedtime?’ because that question could be answered in many ways. Instead do keep your questions very simple and very specific:

  • ‘When it’s time to clean your teeth, where should you go?'
  • ‘What’s the right thing to do after you get your pyjamas out from under your pillow?’
  • ‘How many stories will you have?’
  • 'If you want your teddies on the bed, whose job is it to put them there?'
  • ‘Who kisses you goodnight and turns off the light?’
  • ‘When you’re in bed, where should you stay until it’s morning?’

Do follow up your child's correct answer by having him demonstrate the action, pretending to do what he has just said he should do. This will help his brain to vividly visualise himself doing the action.

Do several think-throughs every day about the specific habits you want to reinforce and the family rules and routines that you want your child to become familiar and comfortable with.

Because cooperation, or rather lack of cooperation, is often a big issue, I recommend doing think-throughs about this every day:

  • 'When Mummy or Daddy (or Granny or the nanny or the teacher) tells you to do something, what should you do?’
  • ‘And when should you do what you’re told?’
  • ‘So when I say it’s dinner time, what should you do?
  • ‘And when you hear the tidy-up bell at school, what’s the right thing to do, even if you don’t feel like it?’

Here’s an important Do:
If there are two parents in the home, both parents need to do think-throughs. And if both parents make a point of doing the think-throughs together whenever possible, you’ll find that your rules and expectations will soon be taken very seriously.

What sorts of think-through questions should you not ask?

Don’t ask questions that can be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
For example: ‘Should you hit your sister when she picks up your favourite dinosaur?’ There are two reasons for this important rule. Children can often predict, just from our tone of voice, whether their answer should be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, without even really paying attention to the question. The other reason that yes-or-no questions are not effective at improving behaviour is that your child may still be visualising himself doing what you don’t want him to do. That would defeat the whole purpose of think-throughs, which is to guide your child to picture himself doing what you believe is the right thing for him to do.

Don’t talk about what your child or teen did wrong. Hearing about one’s faults rarely motivates anyone to improve!

Typical family flashpoints

The following are examples of simple and specific questions that address some of the typical family flashpoints that parents often find frustrating – or maddening:

Because cooperation, or rather lack of cooperation, is often a big issue, I recommend doing think-throughs about this every day:

  • ‘Even if you don’t want to eat what’s on your plate, what’s the rule about where the food has to stay when it’s dinner time?’
  • ‘When you’re angry with your sister, instead of hitting her, what would be a better thing to do that won’t get you into trouble?’
  • ‘When you want to cuddle Fluffy, how can you cuddle her so she won’t get scared?’

You can see from the above examples that there are many different ways to phrase the ‘what should you do’ part of the think-through questions.

7. How many think-throughs will you need?

How many think-throughs will be needed to get the mental image of your child doing something right lodged in his long-term memory so that he starts to do it right most of the time without needing to make much of an effort?

As I mentioned earlier, some children’s brains are more efficient at storing the mental images created by think-throughs; these children will drift into the habits and routines that you want to establish quite quickly, possibly with just a few think-throughs. There are not very many children like that!

Most children’s brains, and especially the brains of those with a more extreme temperament, will take longer - but usually not very long, compared to how long it takes for children to improve their habits when you keep doing what doesn’t usually work: reminding before the event and reprimanding after things go wrong.

Because think-throughs are so powerful, the likelihood is that you’ll see improvements in the issues you’ve been doing think-throughs about sooner than you expect. Once your child is usually doing it right (putting his cars in the basket when it’s tidy-up time, handing you her iPad when her screen time is up, staying in his room during Independent Play, chewing with his mouth closed, answering you politely, doing what you ask the first time you ask, etc, etc), you can then do fewer think-throughs.

Instead of doing several think-throughs a day about a particular habit you want to reinforce, you can do one a day. After a while, even that won’t be necessary, and you can graduate to doing one or two think-throughs each week about the issues that used to be problems. Instead of think-throughs, at this point you’ll be able to give lots of Descriptive Praises about the improvements. (To learn more about this important strategy, sign up here for our complimentary ebook: ‘Descriptive Praise: The first step to transforming family life’.)

8. Trouble-shooting

Reinforcing rules that aren’t being taken seriously

You can also use think-throughs to clarify and firm up and reinforce expectations that have become fuzzy over time and are being ignored because your follow-through hasn’t been consistent.

Let’s say that you’ve had a rule for quite a while that your teenager needs to bring all the cups he’s taken up to his room back to the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher every day. But day after day, the rule is being ignored.

Perhaps you’ve reacted by repeating and reminding. Perhaps sometimes you explode in irritation and frustration. Perhaps sometimes you say nothing ‘for a quiet life’ (which you don’t get), and you collect up the cups yourself. These inconsistent responses are perpetuating your teen’s annoying habit of letting the cups pile up in his room. Your teen isn’t getting the clear message that this is important. To you this may seem like a rule, but to your teen it’s just nag, nag, nag, and ‘blah, blah, blah’. No wonder he’s not taking you seriously.

To get your children of any age to take you seriously, start by acknowledging, at a neutral time, that you’ve been making the mistake of reacting inconsistently. Tell your child or teen that from now on you’ll be practising following through consistently. For example, you, and your partner if you have one, might decide that you’ll be happy to drive your teen to school (or to soccer practice or to a friend’s house, etc) once the cups are in the dishwasher. Make it clear that you won’t remind or nag or criticise; you’ll wait patiently for a certain amount of time. If you’ve chosen a reward/consequence that is meaningful to your teen, he’ll soon be very motivated to remember.

What might be tricky about doing think-throughs at first?

Answers in the negative

Let’s imagine that one of your think-through questions is ‘When you’re really annoyed because your sister grabbed your teddy, and you feel like pushing her, instead of pushing her what should you do?’

Your child is likely to respond with ‘Not push her’. That is, of course, what he shouldn’t do.

But here’s the problem with this answer: while your child is saying this, he is actually visualising himself pushing her! So don’t leave it there. Do Descriptively Praise your child’s half-right answer, but you will need to persevere with your original question: ‘Yes, you’re right. You shouldn’t push her. But when you’re annoyed, you probably want to do something to show her how angry you are. So instead of pushing, what could you do instead? (As I just demonstrated, it’s a good idea to say the word ‘instead’ a lot because that word focuses the child’s mind on doing something different from what he usually does or what he may be tempted to do.)

Be prepared for your child to repeat, possibly several times, ‘I shouldn’t push her’. That’s because, if pushing has been a recurring problem, it’s likely that you’ve told your child numerous times not to push. He definitely knows that he shouldn’t push - but he may not really know what he should do instead.

For example, when talking about sibling or peer conflicts, the advice parents often give children is some version of ‘Use your words’ or ‘Come tell Mummy’ or ‘Ask your sister to give you back your teddy’. If you persevere with asking your child what he should do, eventually he will probably reply with whatever you have in the past told him to do in the type of situation you’re asking him about.

At this point you may feel like snarling (or shouting), ‘So if you know what you should do, why do you keep pushing and hitting?’ Refrain from saying this! The answer to that question, although your child doesn’t know it, is that he keeps doing what he’s in the habit of doing because he’s human. We humans are imperfect creatures. And truthfully, haven’t we all, even as adults, found ourselves from time to time (or often) doing things that we know full well we shouldn’t be doing?

So remind yourself that children are not born knowing how to control their impulsive anti-social urges. It’s one of our most important jobs to gradually, over time, teach our children the skill of self-control and train them in the habit of self-control. And the friendlier and more compassionate we are as we teach and train, the easier it will be for our children (from toddlers to preteens and teens) to pay attention to our rules, routines, and instructions. And the sooner they’ll absorb the skills and habits and values that are important to us.

Deliberately incorrect answers

Sometimes a child will reply to a think-through question with a deliberately incorrect answer.  For example, you might ask, ‘If you don’t want to eat what’s on your plate, instead of saying ‘Yuck’ or ‘I hate peas’, what’s the rule about what you should do?’ He may reply ‘Say ‘’Yuck' or ‘Throw them on the floor’.

A child might react to a think-through question in this way because it’s not really a neutral time; possibly it’s too soon after an incident in which he misbehaved and was scolded, and he’s still feeling angry or aggrieved. If that’s the case, stop the think-through and revisit it at a neutral time.

That’s not the only reason you might get a deliberately incorrect answer. You may have a child who enjoys winding you up by being silly when she knows you want a serious answer. This tends to be the case with children who are by temperament excitement-seekers and risk-takers. When you’re willing to wait, with a friendly face, for up to a minute, often your child or teen will tire of misbehaving and will answer you sensibly.

Disrespectful or whingey tone of voice

Some children, and especially teens, have developed the fine art of replying to adults with sensible words but with a disrespectful or whingey tone. A useful way to handle this is to say something like, ‘Yes, that’s the right answer. That’s exactly what you should do. You remembered. Now I’m going to ask you the same question again, and this time I want you to answer with a friendly voice’ (or ‘polite’ or ‘respectful’ - whatever word your child is familiar with). When your child cooperates and answers politely, make sure to Descriptively Praise both the right answer and the polite voice.

If, on the other hand, he continues to answer with a rude tone or a whingey voice, be willing to wait up to a minute because a lot of minor misbehaviour, including rudeness and whingeing, is short-lived. If you wait, he’ll probably answer sensibly. But if he doesn’t, say some version of ‘I can see you’re not ready to answer. I’ll ask you again in a little while’. Then stand up and walk away. Keep walking - even if he’s shouting, ‘I’m ready now!’. Walking away shows your child that you’re in charge, and she’ll probably take you more seriously next time.

You may worry that your surly or moody teen won’t want to answer the think-through questions. Interestingly, this is rarely a problem, for several important reasons. Firstly, the think-throughs are happening at a neutral time, not when you or they are annoyed. Often, teens react to your annoyance or anger by getting annoyed or angry right back at you. But with think-throughs you’re not scolding or criticising; you’re not frowning or sighing; there’s no impatience or irritation in your voice. Also, each think-through lasts only about a minute, so it’s over soon. And let’s remember that even teens who are in the habit of being grumpy at home usually do answer their teachers’ questions all day long at school without making a fuss. Your teen can learn to be just as respectful to you.

Building trust

If in the past you’ve done lots of nagging and telling off, your child or teen might not want to answer your think-through questions because he doesn’t trust that you’ll be asking him only a minute’s worth of questions. If you think that this might be the case, set a timer for one minute. The moment the timer goes ding, stop talking – even if you’re in the middle of a word. After you’ve done this a few times, your suspicious teen will see that you can be trusted to stop asking questions after a minute. Soon the timer will no longer be necessary.

Dealing with complaints

The first week or so of doing think-throughs, your teen may test you to see if you’ll give up if she complains or refuses. She might say ‘This is so boring’ or ‘But I answered the same questions yesterday. Why do I have to tell you again?’ or ‘This is stupid!’ or ‘I’m not a child!’.

This is where you need to control your own annoyed reaction. Stay calm, at least on the outside! That will help you remember that it doesn’t matter if your child finds the think-through questions boring. Let’s not react as if boredom is going to damage our children. They can survive being bored for one minute.

If your teen complains that she already told you the answer, you can reply ‘Yes, you did tell me. And you’ll need to tell me again. We’ll do these think-throughs every day until you’re in a sensible habit’.

When children or teens complain that your questions are stupid, that’s not what they really mean. Usually what they mean is that you’re systematically closing off their options for ignoring you, and they would rather not be held accountable.

When your teen accuses you of being patronising (‘I’m not a child!’), usually it means that he would prefer to think of himself as someone who’s already mature and doesn’t need any further training in good habits.

What to do about ‘I don’t know’ answers

Some children and teens learn how to annoy parents by deliberately acting foolish or clueless. When you ask a think-through question such as ‘What do you need to do when I say it’s dinner time?’, you might get the answer ‘I don’t know’, often with a smirk. Don’t believe this. Of course they know! But there’s no point in getting annoyed as that would just be advertising how easy it is to wind you up, plus it would distract you from your immediate focus, which is teaching and training by using think-through questions.

If your child or teen says ‘I don’t know’, whether you believe him or not, a good response is ‘Take a sensible guess’. Even if he really doesn’t have a clue what the answer should be (which is highly unlikely), he can always guess. If your child is particularly resistant, he might respond with ‘But I really don’t know!’. You can say ‘That’s OK. You don’t have to know. You just have to take a sensible guess’.

At this point an angry or rebellious teen might ‘guess’ something ridiculous just to see if he can get you to lose your cool. Once again, stay calm at least on the outside! A really good response is ‘You have a sense of humour. Now take a sensible guess’. He'll probably answer properly. Follow up your child’s correct answer by having him demonstrate the action, pretending to do what he has just said he should do.

Being firm and consistent

Remember that each think-through lasts no more than about a minute. So if a minute is up and your child or teen still hasn’t taken a sensible guess, you can say ‘The minute is up. I’ll ask you in a little while’ and then walk away. This will feel uncomfortable for your child or teen because he knows he should answer you properly. After all, he would answer his teachers properly. Your child’s feeling of discomfort is the beginning of conscience.

Once you walk away and get on with your life, it’s likely that your child will come to you quite soon, wanting something. He may want to know what’s for dinner, or he might want you to help him find something, or he might want you to fix something that broke, or he might want to tell you about something that happened, or he might want to tell you a new joke he just learned. But really what he wants is to reconnect with you because he knows he should have answered your think-through questions properly. With a smile, you can tell him that you’ll be glad to talk with him about whatever is on his mind after he answers your think-through questions. At that point he’ll probably be willing to answer sensibly, for two important reasons. You’re not angry with him, so he doesn’t have much reason to be angry with you. Also, he can see that you’re standing your ground and that the way to get what he wants is to answer your think-through questions.

Big problems need big solutions

What if your child or teen has a very problematic habit and you’re desperate to see an improvement as soon as possible?

A big problem needs a big solution. And a big solution could be as many as ten think-throughs a day. If you, and your partner if you have one, commit to doing ten think-throughs a day, you’ll find that within just a few days your child will be following the relevant rule about 90% of the time. This intensive intervention is very effective. Very soon your child will be behaving better, and consequently he’ll be feeling better about himself.

You might assume that your child or teen would hate doing ten think-throughs a day. He might not like it because he’s being reminded ten times a day that he has a habit he needs to improve, but he probably won’t hate the think-throughs. What he probably does hate is listening to his parents repeating and reminding, scolding in an exasperated tone, threatening and shouting.

By now, you may be excited about this new strategy for improving cooperation. On the other hand, you might be feeling daunted about having to learn a whole new strategy. Like all of the strategies that I teach, you will need to practise think-throughs before you start to feel confident. It’s well worth putting in the practice because think-throughs are highly effective at getting our children and teens to remember what they’re supposed to do and to be willing to do what they’re supposed to do - and to do what they’re supposed to do.

Take heart from this parent:

‘Before I knew about think-throughs, I was upset with my children so many times every day. They just weren’t doing what I told them to do. And they weren’t remembering the basic routines. I ended up shouting, so of course I felt like a bad mother. When I started doing the think-throughs, my ten-year-old took to them right away, but it took my teenager a bit longer. There were a few times when I felt like giving up. I’m so glad I didn’t give up because think-throughs have transformed their behaviour. Truthfully, think-throughs changed my life as well! Now I don’t feel like a bad mother. In fact I’m very proud of myself for sticking with it!’

In this article I’ve explained the basics of the think-through strategy. It’s very possible that you have lots of questions. There’s more information about think-throughs, including more examples, in my books and audiobooks.

© Noël Janis-Norton 2005 / 2022

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