Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday that because of one of my favorite movies, has become forever linked with repeating the same day over and over. That’s a familiar sensation to parents. No matter how many times we warn, lecture, teach, or predict, our kids keep making the same mistakes over and over.
Is there a way to break out of the cycle and help our kids start to move forward in their lives? Yes, there are techniques that will help. I learned some important principles from two surprising sources - the movie Groundhog Day and marketing gurus.
Why It’s Not a Simple Question
The question of constantly repeating ourselves is a complex one, partly because there are some inherent contradictions. Many experts warn that if we continually repeat ourselves to our kids, we are training them to wait until the last few warnings to pay attention to us. On the other hand, children who have suffered trauma can’t always process information as rapidly as we expect them to. They may have to hear it multiple times before they understand it.
So where do we put the dividing line? It’s not very helpful to say that we shouldn’t repeat ourselves except when we have to. The best dividing line I’ve found is that we shouldn’t use words in place of clear and immediate consequences. For the bigger issues in life, however, our kids will only learn lessons from repetition.
Don’t Talk, Just Do
The movie Groundhog Day is the story of a man forced to relive the holiday over and over until he learns how to care for other people. The first half is vintage Bill Murray living like there is no tomorrow. The turning point in his redemption story is when he can’t get what he wants through his normal behavior. Most important, he realizes it not from earnest conversation, but from experiencing forceful, repeated consequences.
Of course I don't slapping our kids as the character did in the movie, but the principle remains that our kids rarely pay attention to just our words. The longer we talk, the more we are training them to wait until the last minute to listen to us.
When my stepsons were still teenagers, getting them to take out the trash was a constant sore point. One day in exasperation I asked my youngest, “When do you plan to take out the kitchen trash?” He thought for a moment and said, “I guess when I get tired of your nagging me about it.”
I realized in that moment that I had trained him to wait until I was at the edge of my patience to do what I was asking him to do. And no, I didn’t think he was being obnoxious in his answer. He was giving me an honest response to my question, and a glimpse into his thought processes. He had figured out that he could survive my lecturing and wait until I was truly angry before he changed his behavior.
So, I had to come up with clear and immediate consequences much earlier in the process. I switched to reminding him only once or twice that the kitchen trash can was getting full. Then I used the tried-and-true method of taking the bag of trash out of the can, tying it up, and putting it in his room. I could remain calm, and he had real-world consequences that motivated him to pay attention to what he needed to do.
In my experience, the best consequences are things that flow logically from the way the world works. In the trash example, we don’t want trash to pile up because it is messy, smelly, and unpleasant. My son learned that truth better from experience than from anything I could have said.
I also learned to look for consequences that affected the kids more than the adults. In this case, the accumulated trash was in his room and out of our way in the kitchen. In other situations, as I explain in more detail in my book, we let kids learn from having their phones shut off or losing screen time.
Finally, I had to let go of most follow-up decisions. Once the trash was in our son’s room, it was up to him to decide when to take it out. Short of its becoming a health hazard, I had to take it off my list of things to worry about. If I had kept nagging him to take the trash out of his room, then I would have just compounded the problem. Shifting the problem to his room required me to shut up and let him find his own solution from there.
So, if you find yourself constantly telling your kids the same things over and over, try stopping. Find a logical and proportional consequence that you can enforce before the problem reaches critical mass. Implement it while you are still calm, let go of the details, and move on to your next task.
Of course, reaching for logical consequences does require repetition. It’s just repetition of our actions, not repeating what we say. Our kids will test their boundaries. If we change the consequences or let them talk us out of them, the lesson that our kids will learn is that they can win by negotiating or wearing us down. So in that sense we do have to repeat ourselves. But we aren’t repeating our lectures. We are doing the much harder task of being repetitive and consistent in our actions.
Repeat the Big Lessons
A seemingly contradictory principle is that often we have to repeat ourselves before our kids understand what they are hearing. I learned this principle in marketing my law practice, where repetition is key to getting your message out. Marketers cite studies showing that prospects need to hear a message anywhere from 5 to 17 times before the information makes an impression.
That’s the data for adults, whose brains are fully formed (mostly). It makes sense that younger people with still-developing brains will need more repetition. Children who suffer from trauma, whose brains are preoccupied with physical and psychological safety, will need still more.
A therapist once told me, “I don’t expect teens to follow much of my advice right now. I’m laying the groundwork for them to remember these lessons ten years from now.” So, to some degree, we can’t expect our kids to learn lessons, especially big life lessons, the first time we try to tell them. We may have to tell them 27 (or 270 or 2700 times) that a friendship is toxic or that their new boyfriend/girlfriend may not be a safe relationship or that they need to do their homework earlier rather than later. For a while they simply won’t hear it, and then they won’t believe it until they experience the consequences for themselves. For that reason, we have to be patient and consistent and repetitive.
The other lesson I learned from marketing gurus is that we can’t sell what we know. Instead, we have to create relationships. In law especially, our clients come to us because they trust us. Of course, we need them to respect our legal skills, but any number of lawyers are brilliant. Clients pick us out of the pack because they trust us to take care of their problems.
Our children are no different. They don’t care how brilliant or experienced or wise we are. All they care about is how much we care about them. So the most important things we need to repeat are not all the things that they should do, but all the ways that we care for them. Our care and concern is the only stable foundation for a relationship, and a strong relationship is the only foundation for them to listen to us.
So the message we need to take away from this Groundhog Day is to quit repeating all the things we want our kids to do. Instead, we need to repeat all the ways that we care for them. At the same time, we have to repeatedly and consistently build structure for their lives. Neither is a quick fix, and frankly repeatedly lecturing often is much easier. At the end of the day, however, doing the hard work of building a relationship and providing structure is the only way to help our kids change the course of their lives.