Not a parent but a big sister to an 8yo, I'm about ten years her senior.

Mom has left for a month (caring for her parents) and with dad working it's up to me to make sure my sister is doing ok. Every morning I try to get her ready (teeth brushed, hair combed, etc), but every morning she refuses to listen to me and decides to go play or do literally anything else than what I ask her. I'm not proud of the methods I use to try and get her to work with me, such as threatening to tell dad or promising to spend extra time with her. Most of the time I end up having to get dad involved, and then finally she listens to HIM (doing it as reluctantly as possible, of course).

I'm just really frustrated and looking for advice as to how I can get her to listen to me so we don't have these battles every day. I know I'm not the best big sister especially if she respects me so little, but I'm really trying to help her into a solid morning routine and good habits. Also as a side note, she's homeschooled and so never really had to do the whole getting-ready-before-leaving thing. Often she pushes back brushing her teeth to later in the day or just never gets dressed or does her hair at all.

Please help. Any advice at all is much appreciated.


8 Answers 8


You're in a complicated position, but if it helps, so are most of us parents!

What works will likely be the same sort of thing that works for me with my eight year old.

  • Treat her like an adult, for the most part. Talk to her at your level — instead of acting like she's a child.
  • There's nothing wrong with offering to spend more time with her to get her to do things, but you don't want it to be transactional — otherwise you have to do it every time. Instead, bring it up a level... "If you get yourself ready on time every day this week, I'll do something on Satudrday with you." That disassociates the "prize" from the "action" sufficiently that eventually you might not have to do it anymore.
  • Don't be afraid to bring Dad in when needed, but do it only when absolutely needed — and not as a threat. When there's a schedule, tell her the drop dead point, and then if she hasn't done it by then, go get Dad. "You need to have your ... ready by 8:00 or we can't make it to school on time." Then at 8, go get Dad. (And set that time just early enough that it still can be done, with a sense of urgency.)
  • Remember what it felt like to be 8, and remember how you wanted people to talk to you — but with more of a sense of why the things need to be done now (more of a sense of long term cause/effect).
  • 22
    What I do with my 3yo regarding spending more time, is I say "if we get this done quickly, then we'll have an extra 15 min to play before school!" or something like that. So she's motivated to get ready. And it works the opposite way. "I'm sad, I was hoping to play with you after we got ready, but we can't do that today because you weren't cooperative, we can try again tomorrow". I know there's a big difference between 3 and 8 but it's still a really helpful technique for both ages (and it puts the ball in their court).
    – stan
    Jul 20, 2021 at 8:01
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    @stan It also teaches them about consequences, which is a big plus in my book.
    – Mast
    Jul 20, 2021 at 15:11
  • 2
    @stan A note of caution about the quality-time-as-reward approach: When I was around the age of the OP's sister, I was often late for bed. My dad told me that if I finished getting ready for bed early, he would play with me until bedtime. I don't recall that it changed my behavior much, but it did give me the implicit belief (child logic being what it is) that my dad didn't love me unless I got to bed on time. I do like your language of "we can try again tomorrow," though--it might help the child understand that you want to spend time with them.
    – DLosc
    Jul 21, 2021 at 20:50
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    @DLosc that's a really good point! It's important that the child is getting lots of attention in general. My husband and I usually try to keep fixed times of day when we play with her (together as a family, and individually), that aren't dependant on her behaviour.
    – stan
    Jul 22, 2021 at 7:14

As a father of a now 15 year old boy I have the following advice that seemed to work well:

Don't enter power struggles.

That's hard already for parents; it is probably harder for a big sister. You are the stronger one of two siblings, and when you both were younger you probably had to protect your stuff from her.

But power struggles are pointless, annoying, exhausting and even counter-productive. In the end, even your little sister is supposed to do the necessary things out of her own volition (isn't that a nice word?), with a bit of nudging which, if we are honest, most of us need.

So how do you do that?

First of all, only insist on things that are really necessary. Interestingly, if you are not obsessed with cleanliness or conformant behavior, there are surprisingly few of those things. For example, especially when you are home-schooled or on vacation, you can safely run around in your pajamas all day long; no harm done. So the first advice is to let her try out things. Of course there's nothing wrong to give nudges: If she would dress you would iron her nicest dress. If she took a bath you could braid her hair. If she goes shopping with you she can also decide what you buy, etc. But as others said, I'd shy away from overt "bribery". It's more that you show her the benefits of participation. This may involve that you explain to her that you are annoyed because of her behavior and that you'd be in a better mood if she helped with the dishes and cleaned up after herself.

Then for the things that are necessary, try to make her understand what's at stake. If she doesn't get ready for the bus you two can't visit grandma. If she doesn't go shopping with you there won't be anything to eat but Graham crackers for dinner, etc. Be prepared for her to call any bluffs; also be prepared to hear and consider counter-arguments. Maybe she is old enough to stay at home for an hour while you are shopping. Maybe there actually are enough preserves in the pantry to have a decent dinner and go shopping tomorrow.

The longer-term idea is that your sister learns that you won't demand things from her just for the sake of dominating; that you only insist if it is really important (at least to you). Maybe she also learns that following suggestions you make often has pleasant side effects.

You see that my suggestions are not just tactical advice how you make her do what you want. Instead it hopefully leads to a more cooperative and less exhausting relationship with your sister by a mutual learning process about what is necessary and how to achieve that. (If you want big words, take a systemic look at your sister-sister relationship. Your sister's behavior is only half the system. Admittedly, that is easy to say from my armchair :-).) Change won't happen overnight. Don't be discouraged if she opposes everything you say out of habit. But over time things may gradually get better, and permanently so.

  • 4
    That bolded sentence is absolutely perfect - every time I have trouble with my kids, it's because I can't stop myself from getting into a power struggle!
    – Joe
    Jul 20, 2021 at 14:51
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    @Joe I felt I should write that because that's the picture that seemed to appear to me between the lines of the OP. Of course remote diagnosis is in truth impossible but as a general advice it's hopefully at least helpful to future readers. Jul 21, 2021 at 9:02
  • 4
    I would add to bring Dad in on these consequences too - nothing worse than telling a child "Come shopping or you'll only get crackers for dinner" and then find Dad gave them a pack of crisps or a chocolate bar when they asked. Proposed consequences go out the window if the child discovers they aren't real. Jul 21, 2021 at 10:48
  • @Lio Yeah, the "system" extends beyond the sisters. But I didn't want to lose focus. By the way instead of a "threat" ("you'll only get crackers") I recommended saying that if and when it is true (the pantry is empty). The example is likely an exaggeration -- when is the pantry really empty? -- and in reality it will be rice and beans or so. Another example that factual unbearable consequences are probably rarer than one would think at first thought. Of course what other people (including the big sister) feel ("I'm sick and tired of beans") is a valid concern: We all need to be considerate. Jul 21, 2021 at 12:21
  • 80 percent of human interactions boils down to power games
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 21, 2021 at 19:09

When my kids went through this stage (they all do; you did as well, I expect) I had a good method. We did it together.

"Now we'll all brush our teeth. Who wants green toothpaste?"

"Time for shoes. I'll do your shoelaces if you do mine."

  • 4
    I have a feeling this would be especially effective since OP needs to bribe her with spending extra time together.
    – user
    Jul 20, 2021 at 13:18

Welcome to parenthood, good fun, isn't it?

Firstly, don't beat yourself up about "not being the best big sister". You'e probably doing just fine. I wouldn't go for the respect angle anyway. In fact, I wouldn't even try to be her parent, be her older sister, with emphasis on "sister". She probably looks up to you anyway, more than you realise, pretty much all younger siblings do. You have to see it from her angle. After all, goofing off is much more fun than doing chores, right?

What can you actually do?

  • You can ask her from a scale between 1 and 10, how willing would she be to brush her teeth? She'll give it or 2 or 3, so then ask why she didn't give it a 1? Use her answer, for example, she may say she wants healthy teeth, so you can build on that. Now, if she says 1, you follow up with "what can I do to make it a 2?"

  • Listen to her. So, ask her "why she doesn't want to brush her teeth?". She'll answer something. Repeat the last two or three words as a question. Eg. "I want to play", "you want to play?". Keep going with that until you can put an emotional statement in that she'll probably back up, like "brushing teeth is boring" "So that makes you feel bored?". This might seem a bit vague, but if you follow this line a bit, she'll a) give you better understanding where she's coming from. Sometimes you can find new information like the water might be cold when she brushes her teeth - just an example, but that's something you can fix. And b) it also validates her feelings, which funnily enough often helps to overcome her resistance.

The two things above require a bit of practice, but can be very powerful when done right. If you try them, don't give up on them too easily, just doing it once or twice won't work.

More standard methods are charts.

  • make a to do list for every morning. Help her tick off all the items on the list.

  • make a reward chart to the date your mum is back. Ask what she wants and promise you'll buy it for her (probably better if you buy it than your dad, bit of sibling bonding, so you need to negotiate something reasonable with her that you can afford). Then do a tick chart for every day. If she gets the required ticks in the given time, she gets the reward. Don't do food though.

  • Try doing the chores together with her. If you're brushing your teeth ask your sister to join you. Lead by example.

  • Encourage her when she's doing it right that she'll make mummy proud. You want to tell your mum how proud you are of her, make her understand that you're on her side.

Not sure how much that helps but it's a few ideas that you can try. In the end of the day, it's quite normal. I still tell my 13 year old to brush his teeth every single night. Then again, my 11 year old does it by himself without asking. It's not easy.


Follow the 3:1 rule. Attempt to have at least 3 positive interactions for every 1 negative one.

And yes, that can be exhausting and isn't easy.

If you need the kid to brush her teeth or comb her hair, having a huge supply of good feeling helps a lot.

For brushing teeth, concretely:

  1. Talk to them about why you brush your teeth. Either because they are "forever teeth", or because you "need to learn how to clean them every single day, for when your teeth are forever teeth". (It isn't about learning how to clean them, it is about learning how to clean them every day).

This is treating the kid "like an adult" in that you explain the real reason why, but also treating them like a kid, in that you accept it isn't their responsibility yet.

  1. Explain your position. It is your job to get teach her to clean her teeth every day, even without you reminding her. Not because someone will punish you or to make your life better. It is just a responsibility you have given yourself.

  2. Do it with her. In the same bathroom. Be silly while doing it (talk with your mouth full of toothpaste).

They probably want to spend time with you, especially if you make it a positive experience. This both makes the experience of spending time with you more positive, and provides a reason for them to do the activity.

  1. Your goal is less about today than it is about tomorrow. So start off positive, include at least one very positive thing in the middle, and end off positive. People remember the peaks, the start and the end of things they do, and a positive experience yesterday makes tomorrow more likely to go smoothly.

This is basic human psychology. Kids are humans.

  1. Have something they want to do afterwards that "requires" you to finish this chore first. Don't make it the last thing before something undesirable. "We gotta brush your teeth and comb your hair first, if we are going to have time to play princess pony" as an example. Note this isn't a bribe, it is "clearing a barrier"; it isn't "if you brush your teeth I'll play princess pony with you", it is "the rules prevent me from playing princess pony with you, which we both love, until this task is done". You are co-conspirators, not opponents.

Lastly, odds are the 8 year old will sometimes want to "help" at some task that will be slower with them helping than not. Unless it is really, really important that the task be done quickly (safety, etc), consider doing so; encouraging "wanting to help" is a great way to get positive interactions and positive associations with "help"ing.


As all others said: a warm welcome to parenthood.

Don't discount the possibility of not doing anything at all.

You do not mention it in your question, but your sister may well be under pressure from the fact that your mother is away for a long time (maybe for the first time in your sister's live). Even if it's not obvious and she's not talking about it, that may definitely put her in a weird mood.

Where I live, some children start puberty as early as 8 years, these days (one of my girls certainly did), so don't discount that either.

Consider your own motivations. What is the potential damage of what you're doing (or not doing)? Is there really anything bad coming from her not getting up early, from not brushing teeth or combing her hair? I mean, yes, sure, she might be tired, develop a cavity (this will take reasonably long to survive until your mother is back) or have wild/smelly hair (her social environment / peers will let her know if that's a problem).

As far as I can tell from your question, you have a choice of either focusing on being a good big sister (being there for her, offering your support, but not pressuring her to take you up on the offering; having some fun, watching a movie, getting good food on the table and all that stuff), or you can play the person who forces her to do things she does not want to do. The latter task is pretty fruitless labour, and will not make her like or respect you more.

Leading by example is often better. Try to signal a good mood yourself, take good care of yourself; let the bathroom door open so she sees when you brush your teeth and do your hair. Try your utmost not to show disdain when she doesn't miraculously pick up on it. Treat her as an autonomous being; talk to her like with an adult.

In the coming years, your sister will probably become less open to just be told what to do - that's a function of puberty. I would definitely err on the side of being a good friend, and let the rest slide. Learning by enduring the natural consequences is the best way (exceptions notwithstanding), but it is not necessary for you to always be the one to deliver those consequences. What you can do is to always have an open door for her and focus everything on her knowing that she can always come to you. Much more important than brushing teeth.

  • The pessimistic outlook is a bit surprising to me -- many men can connect better when the kids can have meaningful conversations and start being sports partners --, but I like the advice to "err on the side of being a friend" and let children learn through (factual, not educational) consequences. Jul 20, 2021 at 17:24
  • The answer is meant to be realistic, not pessimistic, @Peter-ReinstateMonica. Which parts gave you that vibe, specifically? I'm happy to defuse them. I have reformulated two sentences which were meant kind of tongue in cheek but probably didn't transport well...
    – AnoE
    Jul 21, 2021 at 7:31
  • Indeed, those were the two that gave me pause. I have thoroughly enjoyed most phases of my son's growing up. I'm also enjoying a more detached parenting now that he's able to mostly take care of himself (he's 15). But then, he is also, in my biased opinion, a great kid, and there is obviously a wide range of experiences out there. It may also be that emotional turmoil and related trouble for the parents is more intense with girls, or at least more openly showing. Jul 21, 2021 at 8:57
  • As an aside, I'm surprised about the downvote -- I always appreciate (and leave, as the downvoter) comments in that case. Jul 21, 2021 at 8:58
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    That was exactly the scenario I had in mind, @Peter-ReinstateMonica; I have great contact to my two daughters (one adult, one a bit younger than your son), precisely because of switching to what you call "detached parenting" very early.
    – AnoE
    Jul 21, 2021 at 9:15

I have a 5-year-old daughter and she would often get upset when it was time to get ready for bed, clean up her toys, etc. Time outs or taking toys away didn't motivate her at all to change her behavior, so we decided to implement a behavior chart.

The idea behind a behavior/sticker chart is that people will do difficult (or even unpleasant) things if they know that there is a reward coming afterward.

Basically, my daughter would get a sticker every time she completed three specific tasks without arguing or pitching a fit. If she had a perfect week then she would get a reward.

Now a reward doesn't have to be something expensive or grand; it can be as simple as baking cookies together or going to the park. It's important to talk to the child about the significance of the chart and come up with the weekly reward together.

We found that this system really works for her, but since your sister is older and, well, your sister and not your child, this may not be the ideal solution.

You can read up on the do's/don'ts of behavior/sticker charts in this article from Psychology Today.

Best of luck!


Obedience is not about respect, obedience is about fear. Fear of the consequences, even if it is just disappointing someone your respect.

If you want obedience you have to make her fear.

OTOH, if you want her to do it on her own because it’s the right thing to do, don’t expect her to do it just because you said so, and accept it when she doesn’t. Accepting it doesn’t mean there has to be no consequences, it means stop telling her to do it. Nagging doesn’t get you respect. Let her deal with the consequences. Your disappointment in her and lack of respect for her and you telling your father about it are all unavoidable consequences that just happen. Let her learn that.

  • 2
    Making your toddler sister fear you is going to do more harm down the road, isn't it? Jul 21, 2021 at 15:10
  • @AdilMohammed: sister isn’t a toddler, and while I’m fine with the fear, the majority of my post is an alternative to that. But since you are asking about it, there there are all kinds and levels of fear. No need to give the child a life long trauma in order to get her to brush her teeth, but the fear of not being able to watch a favorite show, missing out on a trip with her big sister, having to go to bed early, no desert with supper, all perfectly normal and small fears that could be used.
    – jmoreno
    Jul 22, 2021 at 0:52

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