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Kids Don’t “LISTEN” To You?

Often, when people hear that we do not use punishments, rewards, bribes, time outs or arbitrary consequences to mold our children’s behavior – they’re confused.


How then, do we get our kids to “Just listen” (read: obey)?


How do we get them, in other words, to do whatever we tell them to do?


The short answer is: we don’t.


Our children often respond with a resounding “NO!” to our requests, or announce “I’m not doing that!” when we share our plans for the day. Sure, this can be disheartening or disappointing, and sometimes embarrassing, but hear me out. We don’t get them to “just listen” because I don’t really believe there is such a thing.

“Just listening” means either that someone has been scared or bribed into listening… which is something I hope to avoid at all costs. Or that they genuinely respect the request or the person making the request, agree with it to a degree, and are willing to go along with it… which is something I hope to cultivate at all costs.

Most of us were brought up with the authoritarian approach, rooted in the idea that “because I said so” is a good enough reason to do something without question. I don’t buy that. I’m a radical progressive at heart, I don’t believe that anyone should be blindly obeyed simply because they are bigger, stronger, older, wiser, richer, louder, scarier (in essence, all variations of simply holding more power).

In fact, that idea scares the heebie-jeebies out of me. If my child is too afraid to question my authority, what chance does she have to stand up to peer pressure? To pressure from future bosses? Boyfriends?

If my child doesn’t have a clear and unwavering “No” in his vocabulary, how can he speak out against social injustice? How can he develop an equally compelling “Yes”, and know that his choices are authentically his own, that his voice is internally driven?

From the very moment a child is conceived, the vast majority of the major decisions in their childhoods are being made for them by their parents: where they live, what they’ll eat, sleep and do all day. That’s just how the interdependency between parent and child is set up. And so much is under our jurisdiction in the early years… their schools, toys, friends, clothes, meals…

It is our job to keep them safe, to answer their basic – and not so basic – needs, to mentor and to guide. And often, it is our job to set and hold limits (with empathy). Limits such as respecting their and other’s environments and bodies.

But is it our job to assert our will, indiscriminately? Often, when I read mainstream parenting advice, it sounds like they’re teaching me to train a puppy, a soldier or a slave: ideas like ‘Never let them question your authority’ or ‘Hold a united front with your spouse’ or ‘Once you’ve set a consequence see it through no matter what’.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not against limit setting.

I’m simply against arbitrarily setting limits or consequences, simply to assert our authority, and then (to add insult to injury) sticking stubbornly to those limits with more gumption and less maturity than the toddlers we’re trying to parent.

Sure, consistency and reliability have a very real value in relationships. But so does flexibility. Sure, assertiveness is a quality I admire. But so is reconsideration. When I hear ideas like “You’re the adult” interpreted to mean: “Take control with an iron fist”, I feel that the very meaning of being “the adult in the room” is misunderstood at it’s deepest level.

Being the adult in the room means, to me

  • Delaying our gratification
    Taking a long view of our children’s developing character, and understanding that not all lessons can be taught right here, right now.
  • Remaining safely in the hub of self control and efficacy
    Not getting swept up with our children’s (understandable) turmoil and upset. But rather counterbalancing these with an unwavering calm.
  • Reading between the lines
    Seeing the needs that are communicated through the behaviors and the defiance, rather than latching on to the behavior itself and attacking it.
  • Deep modeling
    Offering alternative routes to problem solving such as negotiation and compromise rather than digging in our heals to overpower our kids.
Rather than focusing on getting my child to do as I say I believe I can focus on holding limits, where necessary, with empathy. I can focus on creating an atmosphere that communicates respect for both mine and my child’s preferences, concerns and needs. I can focus on making it clear to my child that, whilst I cannot answer his every wish, I care that he has them. This is not coddling. This doesn’t at all mean that I think kids should always have their way, everything they want, or that they should be obnoxious and demanding. I just don’t think adults should either.

Practical ways to make this part of your relationship

  • Explain
    I know this is something we’re told not to do. But I believe that explaining the reasons behind our choices is a critical respect that we pay the other person. I wouldn’t dream of saying “no” to my husband’s request simply because “I said so”, because this communicates a deep disregard for him. So too, with my kids. Sure, young children can’t process a lot of words, but a short, succinct explanation such as “Because it’s not safe” or “Because it makes me worried” or “Because I’m too tried” goes a long way.
  • Say no to behaviors, not to feelings
    Make sure you’re setting limits on any destructive behaviors while still accepting the feelings that go with them. This communicates: ‘your experience is important to me even if your behaviors need to be stopped’. For example: “Oh man, you are so disappointed, I can’t let you smash your brother’s lego castle, let’s go over here and snuggle.”
  • Don’t shut down defiance
    If your child responds with a clear “NO!” – acknowledge their discomfort and try to explore it with them. Was it the way you asked? Was it the timing? Is there something that would make this suggestion more palatable to them?
  • Admire persistence
    If your child repeatedly asks for something or tries to convince you to change your mind, you can admire their perseverance and their creative assertions without giving into these. You can also reconsider, if they’re making a compelling enough argument. Teaching them that good negotiation gets them what they want is a valuable and authentic life lesson.
  • Negotiate
    Always look for a win-win with your child, where you both feel you’re heard. Would you do this if I did that? Would you do it for a short amount of time? Would you do it if I came with you? etc.
  • Be transparent with your motives
    This takes some real mirror-reflecting-honesty. If you’re asking your child to do something, wear something, say something because of an ego-serving motive (such as ‘because I want to look good in front of grandma and grandpa’) communicate that to them. Or, if you’re motivated by fear or some illogical reasoning – communicate that too (“I know you’re totally trustworthy with the knife, but I get nervous when I see you holding it. Would you mind using the spoon instead?”).
  • Acknowledge your adult prerogative
    “I know you don’t like staying with a babysitter, honey. But I can’t leave you alone. It’s hard to be 6 years old, sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes adults get to make decisions that kids don’t get to make and I know that can be tough.” Of course, softening the blow with empathy and connection can sweeten a bad deal.

Sure, often we (I) don’t have the patience or the emotional resources to embody this type of maturity. Sometimes I’m more four year old than my four year old is: answering him back with smarty-pants pokes, eye rolls or voice-raising. But then, let’s call a tantrum a tantrum… I am tantruming. And it aint pretty. And it warrants a heartfelt apology to my child.


So, if there’s a question to be asked about “getting someone to listen to you” I think the answer is pretty simple: Have a listening relationship. Where you both listen, to each other. Not everyone’s preferences and choices will always be met, including your own. But everyone will be “listened to”.


If these ideas interest you – I think you’ll enjoy reading Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids   and  The Conscious Parent, or take Empathic Limits, my course all about knowing which limits to set, why and how.


How do you feel about obedience as a parenting goal? Is accepting defiance or the questioning of your own authority something you struggle with? I’d love to hear in the comments below.


How are you preparing your little one for a new baby? How are you preparing yourself? I would love to hear your advice in the comments below.

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2 Replies to “Why Obedience is NOT My Goal”

  1. I loved reading this so much and so much of this is what I try to practice with my children. I often get told I’m giving her too much decision making power but as much as I can I want my children to know that I respect their thoughts, feelings and opinions and will do what I can to support them.

    One thing we are struggling with since having a sibling is that my eldest does not want to go to nursery. She wants to stay at home with me and her brother and we are faced with so many years in the morning. She literally begs me and gives me every reason she can to negotiate her way out of going.

    Some days I just dont want to send her because I feel so bad for her and want het to know that I hear her completely and understand.

    By making her go I feel like it’s one part of our relationship that she doesn’t feel listened to.

    Do you have any tips I can use to help her understand that I do understand her feelings but that she does need to go.

    She starts school soon so I don’t want her to think it’s OK to stay home from nursery as it will make things a whole lot more difficult when school starts.

  2. This video was very helpful to me. Your perspective is always so refreshing. You’re right that obedience shouldn’t be our goal. It can be so hard, though, when they just refuse to do the simple things we ask, like getting dressed or putting shoes on. I’m so tired of these battles and often lack strategies to use in the face of refusal.

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