How to make children listen

I have to say straight up that I don’t have the answer to this, I was sort of hoping you might provide it. I just wanted to have a moan.

I was talking to a friend yesterday about the sheer relentlessness and futility of parenting. It came about from a discussion about teeth cleaning. I was complaining that I couldn’t get Belle to clean her teeth properly, and confessed that I had got to the point where in all honesty, I just don’t care any more.

I have been nagging one child or another to clean their teeth/tidy their room/wash their hands/turn lights off for SIXTEEN YEARS now and I am bored of it. I am absolutely sick of it. I never want to do it again.

How to get children to clean their teeth

*face palm*

“Pop and clean your teeth before you go then,” I’ll say to Belle before she leaves for school.

“ARRRGGGHHH!” she’ll wail back at me, stomping off to the bathroom. “I’ll just be LATE then shall I? Is THAT what you want?”

*forced deep breath on my part*

“I’ve done them,” she says, reappearing ten seconds later.

No! No you haven’t! You clearly haven’t!

Why don’t they just listen??

Why, when I have told them 27,394 times, do they still just ‘forget’ to do such simple things or think I’m so stupid I have no concept of the passing of time?

It makes me want to punch myself in the face out of pure frustration.

I know that if I were a Proper Parent I would willingly nag for as long as it took, caring only for their dental health, but sod that, they’re not my teeth are they? Both of my children are old enough now to understand why they need to clean their teeth, and what will happen if they don’t, so why should I waste the precious handfuls of sanity and patience I have on reminding them to do the same thing every single bloody day?

What I don’t understand either, is that the lengths she goes to to convince me she really has cleaned them – like switching the toothbrush on so I hear the buzz, running it under the water in case I check to see if it’s wet – are surely just as much effort as cleaning the damn things in the first place.

*takes long, soothing breath*

OK, I think I feel better now.

Is this just me being selfish and impatient? Should I be ashamed of myself for wishing that Belle would need a filling, just to prove my point, or is this just a natural symptom of 16 years of parenting?

Photo credit – Flag75*



  1. 9 May, 2012 / 10:30 am

    I could copy this on my blog (I won’t!) and wouldn’t need to change a single word! We’re not selfish or impatient – just hair-tearingly normal. And by the sounds of it so are our kids. And you know when you mutter under your breath, “I will stay calm, I WILL stay calm,” and then you lose it? I think that’s normal too…

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:24 pm

      Good, I’m so glad it’s not jsut me. I want so much to stay calm, but sometimes I feel feel it is out of my hands, I just can’t NOT lose my temper.

  2. 9 May, 2012 / 10:32 am

    I remember doing the old “wet the toothbrush” routine to try to trick my parents into thinking I had done what they asked. I also used to trickle water on the soap so they would think I had washed my hands properly (took longer than picking it up and using it – why did I do that?). I guess it must be a personality thing, one of my children does everything by the book but the other is just too “busy” to do things properly (just like I was).

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:25 pm

      I did it too, which is why I can see it a mile off! I hated cleaning my teeth or washing of any kind really, so would do the same as you – come up with elaborate ways to make it look like I’d done it. Why I couldn’t just brush my teeth I don’t know!

  3. 9 May, 2012 / 10:32 am

    Bless your heart, everyone gets totally pissed off with the boring repetition, it just makes you a normal person!

    For teeth I scared the shit out of my son by showing him pictures from the internet of mouths with gum disease – scared me too!

    He still tries to convince me so I have a new saying ‘Is that another the grass is purple saying max?’ i.e. he would try to convince me the grass was purple if he could. The other day he tried to convince me it wasn’t raining when there were obviously rain drops landing on the windscreen! It kind of diffuses the situation and stops me from wanting to hit him over the head with whatever is nearest e.g. toothbrush, windscreen wiper, hand wash etc etc!

    You are right though, it’s actually important that they do learn to suffer the consequences of their own actions at some point before they leave home. Write down all the really irritating things you nag them about and decide which ones you are going to leave them to discover on their own ;o)

    Big hugs xxx

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:26 pm

      Thank you! Belle is just the same, and will stand by the most ridiculous of lies until we’re both at the end of our tethers. She once drew on the wall and was absolutely adament that the goldfish had done it.

      • 9 May, 2012 / 12:47 pm

        I love the goldfish excuse! My sister wrote her name on the wall when we were young – she told mum that the boys who lived at our house before us did it. Top marks for inventiveness, I guess.

      • 9 May, 2012 / 2:26 pm

        Lol the goldfish excuse is brilliant! (not for you maybe, but it made me giggle lots!).

  4. atomum
    9 May, 2012 / 10:39 am

    God I know that feeling so well – I keep thinking that at some point DS1 will actually listen, and its just a phase he’s been going through – for the last 6 years! Clearly not, I obviously have many years more of being ignored to look forward too – joy. I admire your stamina at keeping at it for 16 years – you are clearly far more patient than me – I got so fed up with telling DS2 to stop bouncing on the bed yesterday that I was far from sympathetic when he eventually did smack his head on the headboard – and he’s not even 2 yet! I felt really mean, but probably that little bump will have more effect on stopping him doing it again than the hundred times I’ve told him not to – and save him hurting himself badly next time. That’s how I’m justifying it anyway! I reckon you can get away with saying the same for the filling – don’t the books say we should help our children understand the consequences of their actions? I forget, I binned most of the books pretty early on ;)

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:28 pm

      I can totally empathise with the head banging! it makes me feel so cruel, but my first reaction in those type of situations is ‘well, I told you so…’

      Really sorry to have to break it to you that in my experience at least they don’t listen any more at 6 than at 16.

  5. 9 May, 2012 / 10:47 am

    As you can see already from the above comments- you are definitely not alone on this one. You described EXACTLY what I also go through on a daily basis with my youngest – not so much on the toothbrushing front anymore – although I had that for a few years – but generally listening (“Don’t hit your sister, stop climbing onto the kitchen worktop, stop jumping on the sofas, sit down and eat your dinner, etc.). The frustration, the stress and the guilt at not managing to keep “shouty mum” at bay all because they won’t listen in the first place. I actually managed to get away to a yoga/meditation retreat this weekend and couldn’t believe how liberating it was to not have to tell anyone off!! I was in a blissful state for a whole 48 hours – it was amazing…I’ve only been parenting for 9 years though so I can imagine 16 years gets a bit much xxx If I find the answer I will let you know xxx

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:30 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement. It just feels so relentless sometimes. What you say about the retreat really hits home, but how frustrating that it should have been such a liberation for you, when did it become ‘normal’ for us all to spend our days at the end of our patience, with a weekend of ‘not having to tell someone off’ being such a luxury?

      I think perhaps I’m a little tired and hormonal today!

      • 9 May, 2012 / 12:35 pm

        It IS ridiculous and after experiencing the bliss I really want to try and find a way to bring this into my daily life…I’m thinking meditation might be the key…15 minutes of total relaxation and nothingness once the kids are in bed…I’m going to try it (I’ve never managed to successfully before however – but I’m inspired after my retreat)…it won’t solve the children-not-listening issue but it might help bring me some peace within….here’s hoping ;-) xx

        • 9 May, 2012 / 12:38 pm

          That sounds like a really good idea. It’s so true that while you can’t change other people or what they do, you CAN change how you react to them, so perhaps more inner calm would help us deal with it better at least!

  6. lisbeth
    9 May, 2012 / 11:48 am

    Making children brush their teeth: My six year old had a 25-minute filling yesterday complete with three lots of DRILLING. She was in agony. Both girls are now swearing that they will brush their teeth really well FOREVER.

    Making children listen: Generally I find that mentioning sex to another adult in a low voice does this trick. It doesn’t really help with teeth brushing, though.

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:23 pm

      Yes, this is the irony of course – as soon as you start talking about something that doesn’t concern them they are all ears…

  7. 9 May, 2012 / 12:16 pm

    I have been having the EXACT same argument with Miss L, she refused point blank to clean her teeth until I screamed at her for a good solid 5 minutes – and this had been going on since she was 4(ish).

    I decided when she turned 9 that I was fed up with screaming every morning and evening. So I decided I will remind her, but if she chooses to ignore me and get a filling that’s her problem and not mine. I’ve told her that and you know what she’s actually gotten better and does it at least 3-4 times a week now. I think maybe she was rebelling against my ‘mummying’? Grrr kids! x

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:34 pm

      That’s really interesting, as Belle is nine too, and that’s exactly the point I’m at, where I just think ‘it’s up to her – she’s the one who will have to suffer the consequences’. I do worry though that given the choice, Belle would just not do them at all!

      As much as anything I think it’s the fear of what the other mums would say, or imagining a teacher taking me aside and saying ‘we notice Belle’s teeth need a clean’ or taking her to the dentist and getting told off.

      Perhaps I just worry too much though about what other people think – I’m sure her health should be my primary motivation!

      • 9 May, 2012 / 12:44 pm

        Funnily enough when I gave my ‘if you need a filling, it’s up to you’ speech, I did say to her that her friends might start to tease her if her teeth were dirty or if she had smelly breath (girl loves her garlic!).

        I was hoping that some sort of peer pressure would kick in – you have to use it for good somewhere :). Maybe that had more impact than the filling speech??

        • 9 May, 2012 / 6:04 pm

          That go be the way to go – my only worry there is that I don’t want to start her off worrying about what the other kids think of her, as I think she’s already pretty sensitive about that kind of thing. (Like her mother obviously…)

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:53 pm

      I can totally live with my daughter reaping what she sows when it comes to her teeth – goodness knows she’s old enough to understand the consequences. But what do you do when they simply drop everything on the floor of their room and never put anything away no matter how much you ask them to nicely? And then not so nicely? We’ve been through all the “This is my house”, “but it’s my ROOM!” arguments. I ignore the mess as long as my control-freak tendencies will tolerate, but then I decide to take a stand and usually all hell breaks loose. She’ll point blank refuse to lift a finger and I’ll shout about respect and remind her who’s the child and who’s the grown-up (whilst screaming like a two-year-old myself, to be honest). It all seems to end up being my fault for being a constant nag!

      • 9 May, 2012 / 5:40 pm

        Hope you don’t mind me butting in Mandy – a tip I give Mums (but it might not work for your child – depends on the age) is to make sure that we don’t nag them, but then get them out of the problem by tidying for them. So the deal is, nothing gets washed, or tidied unless it’s in the place you want it to be. I know that many kids might not have quite the hygiene levels that we do, but I bet they’ll start to panic when things are really disgusting ;o)

        I had a long chat with a mate of mine about exactly the same thing the other day (hence butting in) – If asking or nagging isn’t working, don’t do it any more. Basically, no one should get anything for nothing. So when it comes to TV, allowances, treats, being ferried around etc they only get it when they have done the basic things you need done. It doesn’t have to be a long list of chores, just the stuff that will keep you sane. And it doesn’t have to cause an argument – it’s just a fact that if it’s done they get what they want, if it’s not they don’t.

        My mate was HORRIFIED at the idea of being mean and not washing her son’s kit, or take him to his next game etc. But basically there’s no reason for them to change otherwise.

        Alternatively meditate like greener mum suggested and just give up and decide it’s not worth the hassle of falling out with them. Pick what keeps your blood pressure in a safe place ;o) Good luck!

      • 9 May, 2012 / 6:17 pm

        It’s a really good question, and we discussed this yesterday too. I was complaining that Belle won’t do her homework, and asking exactly how I am physically meant to MAKE them do things if they just point blank refuse. I do get what Mummy whisperer says about just stopping, but what can I say to a nine year old? ‘If you don’t do your homework I won’t cook your tea?’

        The other problem is that it impacts on everyone else. Messy rooms don’t bother me quite so much (until it builds to a tantrum from me!), as you can just shut the door, but it’s when they leave things strewn around the house – if I just left things, the whole place would be chaos!

        • 10 May, 2012 / 11:31 am

          @Jomiddleton – don’t underestimate what’s available for you – it’s about working out what her buttons are. Obviously you’re going to feed her lol, but think about the things that she assumes she is going to get that maybe are treats rather than necessities like TV watching, playing on the computer, play dates.

          With the whole ‘dump and run’ that they do when they arrive in the house, I’ve tried to make it really easy for them to put their stuff away in the hall, cos otherwise I would go mad.

          But you’re right, at the end of the day the majority of the shit tidying up is down to me – I just tend to feel better if a bit of it is done by them.

          Kids – problem is, once you get a handle on one thing they find another way to stress us out ;o)

      • 10 May, 2012 / 9:39 am

        Thanks Mummy Whisperer. What you say makes sense in some respects. My daughter’s just 10 at the moment, so I can really only carry that through up to a point. As Jo says, if it was only her room she littered I MIGHT be able to shut the door on it while carrying through on the longer term plan!

        I’m sure my parents never resorted to tactics when I was young. I was told to do something and I didn’t even think of arguing!

        • 10 May, 2012 / 11:29 am

          You’re right Mandy – you could just ignore the room for a few years, because it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and that’s what a door is for ;o)

          My son is 6 and I as him to just do a few little things to show appreciation for what I do for him …
          – put his clothes away once a week (but I put them in obvious piles first so it’s a piece of cake for him and do it for the rest of the week)
          – pick stuff up off the floor once a week when the cleaner is coming
          – Tidy his toys up in the playroom (which is also our hallway)
          – take his plate to the sink after eating
          – let the dog out for a pee when I’m busy doing something else

          It’s only little stuff, but it means that at least he’s contributing something.

  8. Tasha Goddard (WAHM-BAM!)
    9 May, 2012 / 12:33 pm

    RoRo opens the toothpaste and wipes it round her mouth, then opens her mouth and says ‘Smell! You can smell I brushed them, can’t you?’ And she’s only five. And says she’s washed her hands when she very clearly hasn’t. I think, at some point, you do have to leave them to their own bad decisions – arm them with all the information (including the scare tactics suggested above) and then leave them to it. Deciding when to do this for each child is another difficult decision though.

    • 9 May, 2012 / 12:36 pm

      Belle does that too. I think you’re right, but what frustrates me as much as anything is the lying. I don’t want her to think she can just lie about it and get away with it, but if you challenge her she gets so angry and defensive – you can’t even turn it into a joke and get her to admit the truth.

      But then perhaps if I didn’t force the issue in the first place she wouldn’t feel the need to pretend so much.

      God, this parenting lark really needs some guidelines of some kind…

  9. 9 May, 2012 / 1:40 pm

    I feel the same and I have only been parenting for 10 and a half years but boy come on give me abreak now!! I have been repeating myself and filling my days with pandering to their every need for 10 whole years and its wearing a bit thin.. so now when they refuse to listen, stomp around everytie i ask them to do anything remotely helpful or on the other hand shout MUMMMMMMMMMM at the top of their lungs over the most insignificant things that they need me to do right that second, I try hard to do the uncaring mother approach to ease my sanity! Parenting is something that no one really prepares you far do they, the baby bit maybe so, lots of advise and books on that but the tween to teenage bit? I think no one really dares mention all the hassel these little beings cause because its just too horrible, that and we take their unlawfulness as a direct responce to our parenting so to admit our little angels are actually rather naughty means we are then thinking we’re the worst parents in the world.. in reality its nothing to do with the parenting but more just them growing up and marking their independance – like i say its just no one tells you this do they!

    • 9 May, 2012 / 6:13 pm

      You are so right. All of the focus is on babyhood, as though the minute your baby starts sleeping through the night that’s it, it’s not exhausting any more, but it’s just not true.

      Yes they become more independent, but it doesn’t stop being tiring. No one at antenatal classes says ‘prepare yourself for 18 years of relentless selfishness’ do they? They just say things like ‘take a nap when you baby does’. Not terribly helpful in the longer term.

      Maybe they just don’t want to scare people…

  10. 9 May, 2012 / 4:50 pm

    Great blog! There were days I understood why some animals ate their own young. My mum used to laugh when I moaned about the kids to her – the *now you know what I had to put up with* kind of laugh. Keep breathing! And laughing.

    • 9 May, 2012 / 6:10 pm

      Lol at parents eating their young – it does have a certain appeal at times :-)

  11. 9 May, 2012 / 4:56 pm

    Im am so glad to have just read your post thought it was just me i could of written what i just read word for word lol. I think the way forward is to find a really gross poor dental picture on the net and show them, you never know it may just work failing that groundhog day it will be again tomorrow!!
    Cat xx

    • 9 May, 2012 / 6:06 pm

      Perhaps I could find a really good one and print it out and stick it up above the sink! Might be a bit gross for guests though…

  12. 9 May, 2012 / 6:00 pm

    I have no tips for you — but please don’t give up, my parents did and now I’m 29 with a mouthful of fillings, 2 root canals and generally crappy teeth. It cost me a bomb to get them repaired and I live in constant fear of them breaking further (they tend to crack and crumble — the stuff of nightmares!).

    And the worst is that, despite all that? I STILL HATE BRUSHING MY TEETH. Sometimes I’ll let myself have the evening “off”, although it’s more likely to be the morning. And even now, in the light of my 15 minutes of fame being vastly overshadowed by youtube comments about my teeth being yellow (which fortunately they aren’t… yet…)… well even now, I still swig my coffee and think “oh… I can brush my teeth after lunch”.

  13. 9 May, 2012 / 6:09 pm

    You know what – I feel totally the same! I’m 34, but still would not clean my teeth if I could get away with it. I don’t even like having showers! My partner thinks I’m weird, because he could stand in the shower for ages, but I just don’t like it. (That does sound a bit weird now I’ve written it down).

    My teeth are crappy too – more teeth filled than not – and I have nightmares about them breaking and falling out. I do use my own teeth as a threat – ‘you don’t want to end up like ME do you?’ – but I’m not sure it’s something you can really appreciate until it happens. A bit like having kids!

    • 9 May, 2012 / 6:13 pm

      Oh I also hate showers! I don’t mind once I’m in there actually, but unless I’m actually hot, sweaty or stinky… really don’t want to get in there and do it… I’m glad I’m not responsable for anyone else’s hygiene.

      • 9 May, 2012 / 6:18 pm

        No, it’s fine once I’m in, but the thought of getting wet, having to wash my hair, get dry again blah blah. Gross. When I was little my dad used to have to carry me up to the bathroom over his shoulder and just PUT me in the bath while I screamed ‘don’t make me do it!’.

  14. 10 May, 2012 / 7:47 am

    The world is full of normal parents who rant and rave and lecture and pull there hair out and wish they had had their teenagers adopted when they were 3, and the world is also full of normal children who annoy the people they truly love most in the world into wanting to batter them to a pulp with a baseball bat.
    I’m sure it is so that time they are ready to leave home you are more than happy to pack their bags and take them
    May I also add ( this is where you take said baseball bat and bash me to a pulp) if she is 16 it has a few years yet to get worse before it gets better (ok ok I will unsubscribe from your e-mails and not come back)

    • 16 May, 2012 / 4:42 pm

      A FEW MORE YEARS?? What are you trying to do to me Elaine??

  15. crystaljigsaw
    10 May, 2012 / 7:50 am

    Another stuck record here! It does get boring after a while, especially when you know they aren’t listening to a word!

    CJ x

    • 16 May, 2012 / 4:45 pm

      It really IS boring isn’t it? That’s not just me? Children are such cliches – in one ear and out the other, talking to a brick wall etc etc…

  16. Loops
    10 May, 2012 / 9:00 am

    This totally struck a chord with me. My son is 15 and I cannot get him to brush his teeth twice a day – despite having a snoggy girlfriend! I have nagged and nagged, and like you, reached a point where I just can’t be bothered anymore. Except I am bothered really because the last thing I want is for him to lose his teeth and end up looking like a candidate for The Jeremy Kyle Show.

  17. 15 May, 2012 / 11:35 am

    My son is even too lazy to take the inhalers which lie within arm’s length of his bed, which prevent him coughing his guts up. Keep on nagging.

  18. Angela O'Beirne
    28 April, 2015 / 10:08 am

    I don’t wish to be the voice of doom but my daughter is 23 next month and I still have to remind her to switch lights off! She had braces and an obsessive orthodontist so she does clean her teeth but even now I have to ask her when she last brushed her very long hair properly!!!

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