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How to Get Kids to Remember

April 15, 2009

If you are a parent, hundreds of times you have stood in front of a child and heard the excuse, “I forgot,” in a weak, sing-song begging voice. That is when you need the wisdom of Solomon. He is only eight years old, and his life is full of stimulation and distractions. So you reason, “It is possible that he did forget; but on the other hand, how could he forget after two hundred consecutive days of my nagging, rebuking, and threatening him every one of those exasperating days?” You may even have tried spanking several times, until you began to feel guilty in the face of his apparent sincerity: “I just forgot, Mama, please, Mama, I forgot, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again…I mean, I will try to remember.”

How do you get kids to remember and to be thankful? The same way you get a 63-year-old man to remember to wash his oatmeal pan and bowl immediately after use. Frankly, I don’t know if this is a child training article or an old man training article. It depends on your need, I guess.

I have oatmeal for breakfast, seasoned with real butter, sea salt, one small teaspoonful of unrefined sugar, and one half cup of frozen blueberries—absolutely delicious! With the oats, I have two small pieces of homemade, whole-grain bread, made from slightly soured or fermented grains. I am usually the one who fixes it. I wake up hungry and tear into breakfast, leaving a wake of kitchen destruction behind me—that is, until recently when my wife trained me.

She has patiently nagged me…strike the word nag. She has patiently reminded me repeatedly, over and over again, and never spanked me. Yes, it has been her life’s mission for 38 years to get me to remember to wash my oatmeal pan immediately after serving up the oats, and I have tried to remember, but her “encouragement” didn’t carry enough threat to aid me in remembering. In other words, she didn’t create any tension and anxiety, so I remained relaxed, and she remained cheerful, and…I forgot.

What difference does it make, anyway? Wash the pan now or wash it later? Why not just wait to wash it when all the other dishes are being washed? What’s the big deal? Just a preference on her part, I guess—or so I reasoned…if I thought about it at all.

Stay with me; I am getting into the mind of a kid, here. This self-analysis hurts, so be proud of me for getting in touch with my kid self.

Here is how I learned to remember after 38 years. Several times recently—once or twice a week—my wife invited me to wash the dishes with her. Her tone and manner held great thanksgiving if I assisted, so I said, “Scoot over, I’ll wash while you rinse.” I knew the glasses would go pretty fast, and the plates are a whiz, just one swipe and they are ready for the hot rinse. And then I came to this morning’s oatmeal pan. She had retreated to the other room to wait for me…“What’s taking you so long?” I hear her call.

“This pan must have glue on it. I am trying to scrape it off with a screwdriver.”


“This is harder than working in the garden on a hot summer day.”

“It wouldn’t have been if you had washed your oatmeal pan while it was still hot,” she says in her raspy, I-told-you-so, I-am-smarter-than-you voice. “Did I ever tell you that the kids and I used to use oatmeal and egg white for glue? I’ll be here when you finish.” And, as her voice fades, “I’m going to sleep, wake me if you like.”

In one fell swoop, I learned NOT to forget. I now rinse my pan IMMEDIATELY after serving up my oats. How can I remember now when I couldn’t before? Every time I look at that pan, I remember picking at every speck of dried oatmeal, wasting my time when I could have been engaged in more important matters. We old men don’t learn easy, but we learn well. And real men are not afraid to admit when they have made a mistake. So learn well, guys: never take up dish washing.

So, what has this got to do with kids learning to remember? The principle works the same way. Kids who change clothes excessively or dirty them up without thought will never remember to be more economical in their clothes consumption until they have to wash the clothes a few times—dry—fold—and put them all away. Kids who can’t remember to bring their dirty clothes to the laundry will remember after they run out of clean clothes and are denied the privilege of accompanying the family to…whatever, wherever. “No clean clothes, so you are not fit to go out with such a nice-looking family.” A kid who forgets to take the trash out and is therefore made to carry every piece of household garbage outside to the trashcan for three days will remember to do his trash removal chore from then on. A kid who forgets to remove his soiled clothes from the bathroom should be made to clean up everyone’s clothes for a week, and then clean the bathroom, as well. He will remember from then on.

To sum it up in a principle: Make all negative behavior counterproductive by constraining the perpetrator to deal with the consequences of his deeds. Where the consequences are not sufficiently painful or memorable, expand the consequences to cover a larger aspect of the misdeed.

Finally, do not appear unjust by denying a child his favorite activity as a means of chastisement. It appears to him that you are trying to hurt him personally, and it will begin to make him angry. Always maintain an appearance of fairness by choosing a chastisement of the same nature as the offense. Think about it: Would I have learned to wash my oatmeal pan if my wife had denied…well, probably, but that is beside the point. I learned, and everybody is happy.


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5 comments on “How to Get Kids to Remember”

  1. This is how I was raised: with real consequences (not irrelevant spankings.) I have a better relationship that any spanked child I know, and I believe that is in part because it was obvious the my problems were the direct result of my own misbehaviour, not my parents being mean. It never occured to me that as an adult I would have to *make* myself behave without my parents, because I knew screwing up was it's own punishment. The lack of real consequences (or the assumption that these can wait until adulthood, which is in sharp conflict with the idea of training up a child) has always bothered me about your magazines. It's nice to see them once in a while.

  2. I enjoyed this post. This is how I work with my own children. Logical consiquences are amazing. It leaves our relationship secure, the children know & accept their actions & they are disciplined. After all, if I speed I get a speeding ticket. No officer spanks me. I pay a fine, I don't get to enjoy going out/special treat. A month without is enough to change a lead foot to a follow the speed limit foot. And I kept my dignity & my psyche in tact. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing it and I hope it opens you up to logical/natural consequences with your own family & those you mentor.

  3. Thank you for this! I have a preteen stepdaughter who can't seem to remember the same chores she has had for almost 4 years now. It only takes her a half hour tops to do them (we only have her a limited amount of time, so I don't want her having to do chores the whole time) so if she has to take a lot longer when she "forgets" hopefully this will help her to remember. I never really know if she really is forgetting, or having a silent rebellion and it's hard b/c my husband shies away from the subject. "She's getting good grades and volunteers at church. She's a good kid, don't be so hard on her." is what he says. So I do what your book says, I train her when he is not there and try to keep a Godly tongue when she is (God's still working on me with that one.) I went about so many ways to try to figure out to teach her. I thought about "forgetting" to fix her dinner so she'd have to do it herself, or telling her that it's her choice if she can't do her chores, I charge $10/hour to do other family members' contribution to our home, things like that; but I'm pretty sure that would anger my husband, so I haven't. I think he would be ok with this way.