Getting Kids To Listen To You

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (more parenting articles are available)

My kids don’t listen to me! That’s the number one parenting challenge mentioned by parents who complete a Priceless Parenting quiz.

Although different words are used to describe the problem, most say something like “Getting the kids to listen to me and do what I’ve asked the first time.” When you talk about your kids listening to you, it’s more than just being able to parrot back what you said.

Listening is an active process which involves:

  • Paying attention to what is being said
  • Observing the tone of voice and gestures
  • Thinking about what is being communicated
  • Responding
When your kids are listening to you, they understand what you are communicating. Whether they respond as you would like is another matter!

Understanding Who Controls Listening

If you try to force your kids to listen to you and obey your request, you’ve set yourself up for a power struggle. You may say to yourself “Well I’m the parent! My kids should listen to me and do what I ask the first time I ask!”

You’re right. You are the parent and the person in authority. However, your kids are independent beings who choose their own behavior. Ultimately you control your own behavior, not theirs.
listen versus ignore

Being crystal clear about who controls what allows you to focus your energy where it counts – changing your own behavior. One of the natural responses to kids not listening is to raise your voice and repeat yourself. This teaches your kids to wait until you are screaming like a maniac before they actually do what you’ve asked. This is not the lesson you want your kids to learn!

Setting Up For Success

How can you increase the chances your kids will listen to you the first time? Your kids are more likely to listen when you are:

  • physically near to them, not speaking from across the room or another room
  • touching them lightly on the shoulder or arm as you speak
  • asking them to confirm their understanding of your request
Doing these three things reinforces the importance of your message. If your kids do not do what you have requested, then you help them do it instead of repeating your request.

For example, a mom and her daughter were out for a walk. There was a grassy bank next to the sidewalk and the girl walked up on the hill. The mom told her “Don’t walk in the wet grass!” The girl continued walking along the hill. After a couple minutes the mom exclaimed “I asked you to get off the wet grass!” The girl still didn’t respond. The irritated mom began counting “That’s 1, that’s 2”, before she hit “3” the girl was back on the sidewalk.

If you make a request like this and your child ignores it, you need to take action. In this example, the mother could have walked up the hill, taken her daughter’s hand and led her back to the sidewalk. Her daughter would have received a clear message that if she doesn’t follow her mother’s request, her mother will intervene to help her do it.

What else makes it more difficult for your kids to listen? Researchers have found that kids engaged in watching TV or playing on digital devices are difficult to distract. The ABC News video “Generation iPad” includes clips from research by Tovah Klein, Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. The researchers gave preschoolers iPads to use and then had a teacher call the child’s name and ask the child what he or she is doing on the iPad. Guess what? Not a single child responded to the teacher.

So how can you change your home environment to improve the chances your kids will listen? One family decided to allow TV watching and playing on digital devices at certain times of the day – from 4:00 – 5:00 PM and 7:00 – 8:00 PM. They eliminated watching in the morning before school which made it far easier for the kids to get out the door on time. They also eliminated watching right before dinner which made helping with setting the table and coming to dinner on time easier.

Allowing Natural Consequences To Teach

When you teach your children to listen the first time, you are giving them responsibility for remembering and acting. Continually reminding your children puts the responsibility back on you.

Suppose your child’s library book is due at school tomorrow and you’ve asked him to put it in his backpack. At this point, it’s up to him to take action. If he forgets, he won’t be able to check another book out of the library. As long as you can stop yourself from reminding him again, he will learn from the consequences.

Natural consequences are powerful teachers. Sometimes there isn’t a natural consequence so you may need to impose a consequence. For example, if you’ve asked your child to turn off the TV and she has not done it, you can turn off the TV for her.

You can change your behavior to increase the chances your kids will listen the first time. Try to set up the situation so they can successfully listen to you. If they don’t do what you’ve asked, do not repeat yourself or start yelling. Either take action to help them do what you’ve requested or let a natural consequence happen. Soon they’ll learn that listening the first time is their best choice!



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