How to motivate someone who annoys you

My older son has been entrenched in science curriculum ever since he was 12 and hired his own tutor. I told him we were unschooling and I don’t believe in standard curriculum. We argued. Then he said, “Mom you’re so good at finding people to hire, you should find me a biology tutor.”

I was so surprised by his diplomatic approach that I acquiesced. I said, “That’s a really effective way to talk with me. A great way to get someone to do something they don’t want to do is to focus on their strengths.”

He said, “Mom, if I wanted you to keep being my teacher I wouldn’t be asking for tutors.”

Take ownership of your feelings toward the person you want to motivate.

Since then, he has detected his own sprained wrist when I told him to quit complaining. And when I told him to drink water instead of orange juice he sent away for a water testing kit to show me the well water on the farm was undrinkable. (Note: I asked him to send me a link to the kit he used. He sent me this link.)

Mostly he tells me things I don’t want to be true. But I try to remind myself that my anxiety doesn’t make him wrong. So when he announced there is a cancerous mole on his brother’s back, his brother called him a bad word—actually a whole string of them— and I made an appointment at the dermatologist.

Don’t use bribery, create purpose instead.

My older son wanted to come along.

His brother said no.

My older son said he won’t catch any more skin diseases on his brother unless I let him come.

You want me to bribe you to be a decent family member?

It turns out he wanted to take home some of his brother’s removed skin. “For my education!” he said.

Have you ever been to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia? They have preserved the longest intestine, which, presumably, includes the longest poop. They have pieces of Einstein’s brain. And a doctor’s collection of 2,700 things he removed from people’s airways in the 1800s. Once you visit this museum you will be unfazed by a request for a tiny piece of mole.

Probably the dermatologist has never been to the museum because she told my son to wait in the lobby.

Be persistent. Often people don’t hear the first call-to-action as a call to them.

One week later, the doctor’s office called. I didn’t pay when we left because I’m sick of paying cash. They can bill me. It’s like getting a little loan from the dermatologist. I didn’t answer the phone all day. The next day they called four times. I decided that they were pissed about the loan. Fine. I will pay.

I have to try harder to be socially acceptable.

It takes me twenty minutes to find my credit card, which was under the bunk beds so I had to also tell the boys they can’t take the credit card if they don’t put it back.

They said, “Are you gonna answer the phone?”

I pick up the phone and the dermatologist says, “I’m calling to give you the results of the biopsy.”

I didn’t even need to hear the rest. Now I see why they called 500 times.

The doctor tells me about how kids my son’s age rarely have this type of brown thing. The doctor says, “It’s a small area, so it’s probably going to be possible to remove everything we missed during the first removal.”

I need specialists. I need to change his acne medicine. I need medical records from the World Trade Center Health Registry because if you were at the World Trade Center when it fell and you or your kids have a rare cancer you go straight to the Health Registry which is, of course, the Why Your Health is Fucked Registry.

I should have a dermatologist check both kids all over. This is a mess. And then I get a twinge in my left breast, which I feel is God telling me to go get a mammogram. I want to make check-up appointments for me and the kids. At every doctor. Preventative care is so enticing when it’s too late.

Instead of lecturing, invite the conversation to get the person to care.

While I am doing this, the vet calls.

Our dog has cancer.

I say, “Do I owe you money for the appointment?”

The vet tells me again that the dog has cancer. More words. Nicer voice.

I say, “Yes. Okay. Thank you for your call.”

He says, “Would you like to come into the office to talk about it?”

Why is he saying this? Surely this is not how the world works. He is not a therapist. I told him I heard him. I don’t owe him money. Oh. I get it. “I’m very sad,” I tell him.

He is quiet.

People don’t believe you’re sad unless the tone of your voice is sad. I don’t want to tell him my kid has cancer stuff on his back. I don’t want to tell him I have no bandwidth for the dog’s cancer. I cry. I tell the vet, “I’m crying now. Can I call you back?”

We hang up. I pick up my list of doctors again. Pause. I am not sure if I need to cry for real. Unpause. Dial.

31 replies
  1. Lisa Sharp
    Lisa Sharp says:

    Penelope – there are no words for what you’re feeling right now but I know you’ll handle this.

  2. colt13
    colt13 says:

    I love your humorous writing style, it makes it easier to read about tough subjects.

    The kid, and you, will get through it.

  3. Claudia
    Claudia says:

    Beautifully written but I’m sorry to hear this. Sounds very overwhelming – can you use your “getting help” skills and have someone help you make a response plan? Wishing you all the very best.

  4. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    I’m sorry Penelope, this sounds overwhelming, and I think you are someone who does not know where to put your feelings when you are overwhelmed. I hope you will keep writing; I think you said once that helps you to put things in order.
    Can you add the link for the water test? It did not come through. Sending virtual hugs.

    • Rebekah
      Rebekah says:

      Don’t judge how she processes her stress.
      She is being strong for her family, and not all personalities have to be “fluffy” and emotional to feel deeply.

  5. D
    D says:


    I sincerely hope that all goes well. I see you as an old friend and feel awful that your son and you have to face a challenge like this.
    I hope that my prayers on your behalf work.


  6. Liza Taylor
    Liza Taylor says:

    Hi. I’m glad you let your older son nag you into catching this early. My husband is a cancer prognosis researcher, so let me know if you want information. I’m thinking of you and your brave sons. These doctors are in for an adventure.

  7. Mu
    Mu says:

    I’m sorry to hear this Penelope.
    I am confident however this will be handled efficiently by the doctors. It was caught early, thank God.
    Be well.


    Wish I could give you a huge hug–can’t imagine the anxiety you must be feeling. But if it helps, my best friend (55 yrs old) and my father (83 yrs old) have both been dealing with melanoma recently, and I’m blown away by how great everything has gone for each of them.

  9. Kimmie Morrell
    Kimmie Morrell says:

    Penelope, when it rains, it pours. I’m sure plenty of us can empathize with you! I certainly can! Kudos to that pain in the butt older son of yours! Can I borrow him? I hope everything is okay, but I’ve had the same type of skin cancer; hopefully everything will turn out well when you return to have the rest removed.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m sorry that you’re having to go through all this bad news all at once. But I know when I read this paragraph – “I should have a dermatologist check both kids all over. This is a mess. And then I get a twinge in my left breast, which I feel is God telling me to go get a mammogram. I want to make check-up appointments for me and the kids. At every doctor. Preventative care is so enticing when it’s too late.” – that you’ll navigate your way through this mess and it’s not too late. Set priorities and goals and achieve them one day at a time. You’re good at doing that. Best to all of you.

  11. Mandy Fard
    Mandy Fard says:

    I am so sorry to see you are going through all this. Cancer is a scary word; once that I have had to deal with one too many times. I sure hope your sons are clear of any malignency. My neighbor recently had a similar experience where she found an unusual mole on her nine-month-old’s back. After a lot of fretting and testing at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, the child was fully cleared and of course, her mother was relieved and grateful. I will hope and pray that you will have an even easier experience. As for your dog, I am so sorry to hear that the cancer is actually confirmed. Is it an older dog? Is it a lump? Do you think the dog can recover? What are you going to do? I recently lost my dog to cancer and I can’t say I have recovered from it. One thing I know FOR SURE is that they don’t die. They start to live in our heart and they still wag their tale when we think of them. I miss my Sunshine… My prayers are with you. Be brave, be strong. All the power to you.

  12. Mimsey
    Mimsey says:

    You don’t actually say what the “brown spot” was on your son’s back. You hint that it might be cancer, but you don’t actually say it is. Why is that? I hope it’s not, btw.

      • D
        D says:

        You need to get an advocate (a medical professional) who can serve as your representative to ensure that your son gets the best help possible. Of course you are going to self educate, but before you come up to scratch, you need a representative. My wife serves as mine.


        • Rita
          Rita says:

          Can I ask why you call Penelope Penny? Perhaps you are a close friend of hers, because otherwise it seems condescending. I’ve noticed a few commenters using the name Penny, perhaps I’m missing something!?

          • D
            D says:

            Hi Rita,

            I call her Penny because I asked her years ago if it was okay and she said yes. I’ve been reading her blog for around 20 years, since before her move from New York, in the Business 2.0 years, before her kids were born, and before her divorce from her husband – not the farmer. I intend no condescension and if she wishes, I will stop. She does not know me, but her advice has helped me, and I have forwarded it to my adult kids when I believed it was needed. I see her as a friend and wish her nothing but the best.

            Thank you for looking out for her.

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            I actually do feel like I know you. You’re the only person who calls me Penny — like, in the whole universe! And you comment a lot, which means at some point I’ve googled you.

            I think a lot of people would be surprised at how many readers I keep in my head. I mean, this is my job. I care a lot about the people who read and comment.


  13. Ai
    Ai says:

    Keeping you in my prayers. I like D’s idea of an advocate 💪

    P.S. I’ve also been reading for close to 20 years now. I had to say something here because I know I would want to hear from people who cared.

  14. me
    me says:

    “Preventative care is so enticing when it’s too late.”

    I learned almost five years ago that I’d developed osteoporosis (I had just turned 50).

    I’m small-boned so I had asked my Gyn to authorize a bone density scan just for my own information. I was stunned beyond belief when he told me I had osteoporosis – I had absolutely no idea that someone my age could have it.

    For five years, I refused to take an osteo drug because of the horrific potential side effects. Last month, I finally started the drug – but now I’m scared it’s too late/I waited too long for it to make any significant difference.

    Please, please dont be me. Please make your and your boys’ health a priority ….

  15. temple run 3
    temple run 3 says:

    Also, having him talk to a therapist is the most wonderful, loving thing you can do for him…
    He can discuss things with her that he might not be able to tell you.

  16. Sam
    Sam says:

    I really appreciate the way you express advice through a personal experience. Hearing this explained with examples makes it clear why you find these approaches to be the best practice. Thank you for opening up to us so that we can learn through common experience.

  17. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    “Preventative care is so enticing when it’s too late.” I love this so much!

    I used to have severe depression and anxiety for so long that my life was like those cars running while taped together with bandaids and duck tape. I dropped the depression and anxiety and was left with an amalgamation of haphazard executive function and life habits that do not make sense anymore. So I’ve been on clean up and correction mode and I am mostly loving it.

    I am picturing that I will be the responsible girl that gets her check-ups and possibly even a dentist even tho I’ve had insurance forever and I could have done this long ago.

    I am the poster child for preventative care. My legs hurt today from Monday’s workout. And I go into deeper self care mode when I anticipate that the emotional output is too much. I am the epitome of responsible. I glow in an aura of responsible adult light.

    And then the self-sabotaging part of me is like….”ew! that’s so boring! and bad things happen to good people like all the time so might as well be disorganized and irresponsible so when bad stuff happens there’s a real reason for it.”

    Conversation is lively up in here.

    And I love this post because you make a sitcom out of a double cancer situation.

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