Why kid’s “don’t listen” and what we can do about it
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Does it frustrate you when you ask your children to do something, and they don’t do it? Do your kids ever tune you out or not hear you when you’re trying to talk to them? Do they ever dig in their heels or do the opposite of what you’re asking them to do? Doesn’t it just drive you CRAZY sometimes?? Or is it just me?
The truth is, we use the term “listen” as a euphemism for “obey,” expecting children to fulfill our demands automatically, and to answer our requests immediately, completely, happily, and without reservation… or ELSE! But Obedience is NOT my goal. And kids are people after all. There’s a whole host of reasons why people sometimes don’t hear, don’t listen, or don’t cooperate with others. It could be:
- They have a more pressing need like hunger, sleep, they need to pee, or they’re bursting to tell us a story.
- They’re distracted, or busy.
- They’re overstimulated from no downtime, and just can’t process more information. They’re frozen and checked out!
- They don’t have what they need (tools, skills, etc.) to fulfill a request. For example, “Go and brush your teeth!” when a 3-year-old can’t actually operate the toothpaste yet independently. I’ll say “Go and put on your shoes”, when they can’t reach the sock basket.
- They might not understand what we’re asking. “We’re leaving in 5 minutes, get ready” may be too broad and vague. Little children may be in their pajamas, but feel they’re ready! Sometimes we use metaphors, or euphemisms they don’t get. Some kids may not understand what’s required based on “please set the table.”
- They don’t want to do what we’ve asked them to do. They haven’t seen the value. They might even feel manipulated or controlled and so don’t want to do it. For me, this is a sign that I haven’t come around to help them understand the WHY that something is important.
So here’s my take: if your kids aren’t listening, give them something worth listening to. When it comes to listening, what we’re saying matters. If we’re asking our child to do something boring, difficult, or not age appropriate, we can definitely expect some resistance. It’s just like if our partner asked us to do something challenging like filing the taxes tonight, or finishing the laundry today. We might not “listen” right away. We might need some more information, context, or coaching before we get on board with our partner’s wishes. It might not actually be a reasonable request to begin with!
When it comes to listening, when we’re saying it matters. If our child is tired, distracted, or absorbed in their play, we’re going to have to work a little harder to get their attention…or wait. Just like if we were in the middle of writing an email, watching a show, or talking to a friend, we might not appreciate it if our partner asked us to finish the dishes right away. We might need some convincing that this was in fact the right time, and that it couldn’t wait.
When it comes to listening, how we say it matters too. If we bark an order, give it with criticism or judgement, or if we don’t take care with our phrasing, then the natural human response is to rebel. Just as if a colleague is short with us or bossy, we might not be so excited to cooperate with them. We might need to be asked politely and kindly, and offered a genuine choice whenever possible. I think all people want to be cooperative if offered a choice, but when I bark orders, or demand my kids do something that is too challenging, or interrupt their focus and flow, they need to tune me out because they can’t handle my request!
How CAN we get our children to listen to us?
Firstly, what are you modelling? When your kids ask you a question do you continue looking at your phone mumbling “hang on a sec”? When your child asks if he can have ice cream for dinner, you may say no but you can still show that you’re listening to the request. “You’d like ice cream for dinner! That would be really delicious wouldn’t it? The thing is sweetie, it’s not healthy for our bodies to eat only ice cream for dinner because it doesn’t have enough of the nutrients we need for a meal.”
Get their attention first. Go down to their level, make eye contact, and speak calmly, clearly, and in a way they can understand. This actually breaks the fight, flight, or freeze that they may actually be in when you’re giving orders, standing above them.
“Babe, I know. This is so fun. You wish you could stay forever. I get it. But you know what? We gotta go.”
When we make a habit of acknowledging what’s going on for them first. They’re way more likely to listen to you.
Consider your body. If you’re in the other room yelling “It’s time to switch off the screen” of “It’s time for dinner!” You can bet that if there’s any of the reasons mentioned above for your child not to listen, they are unlikely to motivate and break the power of inertia. We have to create some sense of friction. If your body and voice are far away, your message is far away. Come in close, and get eye contact. If your child is busy, maybe you really can wait. If you can’t, you need to come down, hand on the shoulder, ask for eye contact. “Hey buddy, I see how busy you are but I have something important to ask you. Can you look at me for a sec?” Speak calmly, and clearly. The other thing about interruptions, is that when flow is broken we feel grumpy. Give them a road map for when they can get back to what they are doing. “We’ll be able to continue this as soon as we get home in 2 hours.”
Say it ONE time, and say only ONE thing. Rather than “Go wash your hands, set the table, and then come sit down because we’re having dinner!” say “It’s time to wash your hands for dinner.” Using “It’s time to…” may also be more palatable than giving a demand.
We won’t (and can’t) do all of these things perfectly every single time, but it’s something to work toward. For now, I’m working on giving my children something worth listening to. As much as possible, let’s make requests that feel fair and are spoken at the right time and in a way that feels manageable. They won’t just be listening to us, we’ll be listening to them too.
What is one thing you can do today to make your child feel LISTENED to? Tell me in the comments. ♥