How Can I Get My Kids to Listen?

Kids not listening is the most frequent parenting complaint, and one of the most frustrating. Fortunately, it’s a simple problem to fix, if you know one secret: the person who needs to change their behavior is you.

Let’s face it: it’s incredibly difficult to change other people. But we do have the power to change our behaviors in ways that can shape theirs. These seven tips will help you and your child enjoy better communication and results from day one.

1. Take a moment to engage listening

When we need something from a coworker, we walk to their workspace, say their name, and look them in the eyes. Once we have their attention, we explain our request. How does this contrast with how we ask our children to do things? What results would you expect if you shouted your request across the office?

Use these steps to get, and keep, your child’s attention:

Go to where they are. It might seem too time consuming to stop in the middle of making dinner to walk to your child’s room and ask them to take out the recycling, but is it? Chances are, shouting from the kitchen will take more than one attempt and save little or no time.If you must interrupt, model the polite way of doing it. If you’re shouting from another room, what are you teaching your child about how to get your attention when they need it?

“We ask our three-year-old to touch his ear to show he’s listening. If I see his arm starting to drop, that’s my cue that I’ve talked too long. I’m learning to make my instructions shorter!”
—Becca

  • If you must interrupt, model the polite way of doing it. If you’re shouting from another room, what are you teaching your child about how to get your attention when they need it?
  • Make eye contact and ask them to pause their show or put down their toy for a moment before you speak. If your child is very young, get down to their level.Use their name—this is a simple and effective technique for getting anyone’s attention.
  • Use their name—this is a simple and effective technique for getting anyone’s attention.
  • Use positive and clear language that says what you do want, not what you don’t want.
  • Avoid language that judges or characterizes the listener; once your child is in self-defense mode, all listening stops. Saying, “Please feed the dog before you go back to your game” is clear and firm but avoids the recriminating tone of “You forgot to feed the poor dog again.”
  • Use “I” messages and enlist cooperation. Instead of, “Pick up your jewelry stuff” your daughter may respond better to, “I need to vacuum the carpet and I’d hate your beads to get sucked up. Please clean up all the pieces of your jewelry kit before you go out to play.”
  • Check for understanding. With young kids, you may ask them to paraphrase your request. For teens, you can ask if they have questions or take a moment to agree on a time when the task will be complete.
  • Thank them in advance for their help. When they’ve agreed to what you’ve asked, give them the benefit of the doubt and thank them, just as you would thank another adult. A simple, “Great, thanks. That would be so helpful” ends the conversation on a positive note.
  • Don’t repeat yourself—really. We’ll explore that more below.

2. Keep it Simple

Children, especially young kids, have a hard time with complex instructions. Instead of telling your son, “Feed the dog—and don’t forget to put the dog food away like last time—then fill his water dish and grab the mail” try saying, “Please feed and water the dog.”
When he is done, you can decide if cleanup steps are in order or whether you can move on to asking him to get the mail.

3. Don’t Repeat Yourself

“I’m not ok with the natural consequence of my kids not wearing bike helmets so the rule in our house is that the bike goes up on the garage wall for a week if they ride with no helmet. I stopped reminding them but they both miraculously stopped “forgetting” after they walked for a week.”
—Toby

Have you trained your child to ignore you by repeating your requests five or six times? Chances are, they’ve learned to recognize in your voice the moment when they actually need to comply. If you’ve taken the time to engage your child’s attention, given a clear and simple request, and checked that they understood it, you shouldn’t need to repeat yourself.
No, your daughter still may not pick up her 700 beads. But when you follow through on your intention to vacuum the carpet, a natural consequence will set in. She may decide she prefers to pick them up next time, rather than dig through the dust bin to retrieve them.
In many situations, there is a natural consequence. In others, you can establish the logical consequence of not listening up front. In both situations, follow-through on the consequence is the essential step to avoid repeating yourself.

4. Replace Nagging with Routine

So much of what we tell our children is the same every day: hang up your jacket, feed the dog, brush your teeth, take out the trash. Clearly documented routines can spare your voice and temper.
For school-age kids, a posted list of before-school and after-school activities is a good place to begin. For preschool and younger kids, printed photographs of them performing the required tasks in your morning routine can help them to learn and check-off each step.
Discuss the list when it goes up and then resist the urge to nag. When your child asks to go out to play, you can ask if they’ve completed all the items on their list. Over time, and with consistency, your need to remind them of their tasks will fade away.

5. Use Volume & Tone Consciously

Did you know a whisper can draw more attention to your words than a shout? It’s true, but hard to recall when your blood pressure is rising. Consciously modulating your voice is a powerful communication tool used by public speakers and savvy parents. If you’ve taken the steps above, you should already have reduced the temptation to shout. But there are still times we need our children to take special notice of warning words. Next time this happens, try adopting a low, firm tone and speaking slowly. Of course, if your toddler is fifty feet away and about to walk into traffic, do shout! If you’ve reserved shouting only for danger, think how much more effective it will be.

6. Offer Praise & Thanks

Just like us, kids want to be recognized when they’ve been helpful. A sincere thank you doesn’t just reinforce their listening skills, it models gratitude and good manners.

7. Model Good Listening

When our children approach us, do we demonstrate the kind of listening behavior we want to see in them? Do we put down our phone or only pay them peripheral attention? Modeling the listening behavior we want to see when we approach them is more important than we may realize. As the saying goes, kids hear little of what we say, but one hundred percent of what we do.

Good communication is about respect and empathy on both sides. If we make the mistake of thinking kids should listen because our agenda is more important than theirs, we are sending ourselves down the path of nagging and frustration. Modeling a communication style that respects everyone’s time and needs is the surest way to teach kids to listen when we speak.

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