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  • Ask and wait, give gentle reminders, stop praising your kids, and more strategies for getting kids to listen from Dr. Justin Coulson. Tweet This
  • Being attuned to our children’s capability and mental state can help us to understand when we should be asking, what we should be asking, and how we should be asking.  Tweet This
  • Parents have an obligation to help children follow rules. It’s how civil society operates. Tweet This
Category: Parents

One Sunday afternoon, my youngest daughter skipped out the front door and left it open. I called out after my 8-year-old: “Emilie, close the door please.”

Emilie ignored me. Oh, she heard me alright, but she purposefully chose to keep skipping toward her scooter without a shred of intention of turning around and shutting the door. 

I felt my temperature rise. With a deliberately stern face I strode to the door and demanded, “Emilie, I asked you to do something. Now you come back here this instant and shut the front door.”

But she was gone. In those few seconds, my pathetic commands carried across the concrete driveway towards the curb Emilie had just left, scooting to her friends who were engaged in a perfect children’s adventure in the park across the road. 

Why Kids Won’t Listen

If you have a child who is a chronic non-listener, my first piece of advice is to rule out medical issues. A quick visit to the GP will give you the answers you need. Appointments for the doctor can be hard to book though, and there is definitely a level of expense many of us would rather do without. If that’s you, then a cheaper test is to stand by the door and quietly ask who wants ice-cream (or who wants some money to go buy treats at the shop). If your child jumps up with an enthusiastic yes, your hearing test is probably complete.

Assuming there are no physiological hearing issues, there are a host of other reasons that our children won’t “listen.” But the reality is that they can hear. They are listening. We’re not speaking correctly when we complain that our children won’t listen. Perhaps a better question might be why don’t our children do as they’re asked?

There are countless reasons that our children don’t follow our instructions. These can include:

  • Not wanting to be told what to do (which is probably a bit like us right?)
  • A hyper-focus on what they’re doing right now
  • A preference to do something/anything other than what we’re asking them to do
  • Additional needs (like ADHD or ASD)
  • Being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Stressed (HALTS)
  • The quality of our connection with them
  • How many things they’ve already been asked to do
  • The fact that their sibling isn’t being asked to do the same amount of work
  • Whether it’s something they care about
  • It’s too early or late in the day
  • They don’t want to work with their sibling on that job
  • The way we’re asking them/telling them to do that thing
  • Not actually having the skill or ability to do as they’ve been asked 

In many cases, it’s not just one thing, but a combination of things. Being attuned to our children’s capability and mental state can help us to understand when we should be asking, what we should be asking, and how we should be asking. But sometimes things have to be done, regardless of how everyone feels. In those situations, we need compliance.

The Compliance Conundrum

These days compliance is a dirty word in the parenting blogosphere. For many people, compliance means that a parent is a demanding authoritarian, expecting children to follow orders regardless of preferences otherwise. Compliance connotes coercion and intrusiveness.

As with every social media firestorm, there may be a kernel of truth to this. Compliance is not a healthy long-term objective for our children and is not an ideal focus for our parenting.

But can we be real for just a minute? Sometimes, they just have to buckle up in the car. They actually should swim between the flags, wear shoes while riding a scooter, and stop throwing knives at their brother! These are safety issues. And they matter. And sometimes the table does need to be cleared, the school bag put away, or the stinky sports gear placed in the laundry basket. It’s called being part of the family and learning to do your part.

Parents have an obligation to help children follow rules. It’s how civil society operates. And while we’re keeping it real, let’s recognize that beyond those considerations, it’s just more convenient. 

If we can teach children that life is better when they help others, think of others, engage with others, and live for others, we’ll find they are more likely to help out willingly—and enjoy the opportunity.

So what do we do when our kids “won’t listen” and it actually does matter? 

If you pause and do a small audit of how well your children listen, you might be pleasantly surprised. Unless you are responding to a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, you’ll probably discover that your child does listen. Regularly. Consistently. And well.

So pause and consider when they do and when they don’t. You may find that things are going better than you thought. But we all want to do things a little better. First, let’s consider 7 simple ways to build and encourage listening—and compliance. (And please note, I’ll be emphasizing respectful approaches where compliance isn’t all about authority, control, command, and coercion).

Seven Basic Strategies

You’ll typically find that a handful of standard answers permeate the Internet and parenting advice books when it comes to this topic. Let’s acknowledge them first because they can be helpful.

1. Keep it simple.

Short sentences are easier to process than long lectures. Keep your statements and requests simple, clear, and direct. 

2. Get on your child’s level

Making eye contact, smiling, and ensuring your child has heard you always improves the likelihood that your child will act. 

3. Repeat it back

Ask your child to tell you what you told them. If you ask them to pick up the wet towels from the bathroom floor and they’re not responsive, ask them, “What did I say just then?” and wait for them to tell you. When they can repeat it back, you know they’ve listened, and they know you expect action.

4. Speak more quietly

When our children are not listening, we have a tendency to elevate the volume. But remember, your child is not deaf. Speaking louder (yelling) won’t draw them to you, and it’s unlikely to encourage them to want to listen to you. Try speaking softly. They’ll open their ears, lean in, and listen carefully.

5. Gentle touch

A soft touch on the arm, a squeeze or a hug, or an arm across the shoulder. These gentle touches can be enough to act as a circuit-breaker so your child can pay attention to what you’re asking and help move things along.

6. Drop the don’t

Say what you want. If you tell your child what not to do (such as “don’t hit the stick against the wall”) it requires more effort on the part of your child to redirect their energies. Now they have to stop doing the thing that’s bothering you and think of something to do instead. 

7. Find a way to say “yes”

When you have to say “no,” spin it into a “yes.” If you’re asked, “Can we stay at the park longer?” you can say, “You bet. We’ll have a longer stay at the park on the weekend when we come back with your friends.” If they plead, “Can we please have ice-cream,” respond with, “You sure love ice-cream. We’ll have ice-cream on Friday night with our movie like always.” Your yes is usually going to be a “not now,” but if you phrase it right, it goes down a treat.

These strategies will help you move things forward if you’re stuck. But they’re all essentially built around what is convenient for us. Their foundation is that stuff has to be done and the kids need to get with the program. 

Five Better Strategies 

If we want to be better parents, the five suggestions in this next section will help us take it to a whole new level.

1. Connect 

When you ask your child to do something, consider the connection. Connection means feeling seen, heard, and valued. Do your children feel like you see them as more than a convenient way to get something done? Trying to command without connection—like yelling between rooms—is a lousy way to have your kids pay attention and usually won’t lead to anything resembling compliance. (It’s not realistic to expect that you’ll “connect” every time something needs doing. But maybe we can connect more than we currently are?)

2. Timing

If your child is in the middle of something—anything—their listening and compliance will be way down. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask our children to be involved in helping when they’re doing something. That’s not realistic. But when we’re sensitive to their priorities, things go better. 

Consider statements like, “When that episode is done, please turn off the tv.” Or “once you’ve finished eating (or playing, or reading, or…), please take that bath.”

3. Capability

We expect too little of our children physically and we expect too much of our children emotionally. Demanding they “calm down” or “stop it” might be more than they can manage. But asking them to clear the table (or pick up their socks or close the door) will typically not be too much. Consider their developmental capability, emotionally and physically, before issuing edicts.

4. Context

Your child might be perfectly capable of going to bed on time most nights, but on a sleepover night (or some other major event), the context changes. Demanding perfect behavior at a funeral might make sense and be a sign of respect, but if they’re grieving and confused, or if all of their cousins are there and they’re excited, we might need to adjust our expectations. Requiring our children to listen to us the same way in every context is akin to expecting our children to act like robots. Be mindful of context. 

5. Gentle Reminders

Call your child by name. Look at them and quietly remind them of the issue that’s requiring focus. The fewer words you use the better. Two is ideal. For example, “Your bedroom,” “Your stinky socks,” “The dishes,” and so on. Say please and smile kindly.

Six More Advanced Strategies

I’ve used all of the above suggestions and strategies countless times over the years with my six children. But as time, experience, and learning have all developed in me, I’ve come to prefer the following advanced strategies. These are strategies that:

  • Build better connection
  • Promote competence and capability in our children
  • Facilitate autonomy and intrinsic motivation, and 
  • Make me feel like I’m a better parent (and person)

1. Work on it together

Being told to go and carry out a task alone can feel both isolating and punishing. Often the tasks we ask our children to complete can also feel overwhelming, even when it’s within their capability to complete. This is because they have other priorities, they’re tired, or they simply don’t want to do it alone.

Our children want to be in our world. They love spending time with us. When we say, “let’s do this thing together,” we create connection and respect. And we create shared moments that can become meaningful highlights to our day. From cleaning the room to washing the dishes (or the car!) our children’s willingness to get stuff done increases enormously when we collaborate with them.

As a bonus hint, you’ll often find that you don’t need to do much while you’re “working together.” Sometimes simply being present, talking, and offering gentle guidance (like humorously saying, “what are the first three things you’re going to put away in this catastrophe of a bedroom?”) is enough to get them going. 

2. Ask and wait 

After you’ve asked your child to do something and they don’t do it, how long do you usually wait before you ask again? Ten seconds? One minute? My suggestion: wait longer. Give it about five minutes.

As long as there are no screens involved (which numb conscience and our children’s capacity for intrinsic motivation), waiting after you ask your child to join you in doing a task is a powerful way for them to tap into their inner voice, listen, and respond. Often (though not always), your child will feel that pang of conscience whisper to them that the best version of themselves really ought to be helping. And if you’re involved in the task they’ve been asked to help with, the pull to help and be involved will be even more powerful. 

As long as there are no screens involved, waiting after you ask your child to do a task is a powerful way for them to tap into their inner voice, listen, and respond.

I recently spent some time in the yard clearing leaves. A few minutes into the task I realized the kids could be helping. I called Lilli (age 12) and Emilie to help. Lilli rolled her eyes but came over and got involved. Emilie decided this wasn’t for her. Rather than becoming agitated, I focused on tidying up and on chatting with Lilli. Within 30 seconds, Emilie decided to join us. Her conscience had processed the request, recognized that we were together, and identified that she wanted to be a part of what was happening.

Once again, I emphasize that our kids want to be in our world. Connection, collaboration, and a sense of control will lead to better outcomes.

3. Stop praising your kids 

I’ve written extensively about why we should not praise our children here. But one thing I didn’t mention there is that praise essentially gives kids a quick and easy shot of dopamine, the “feel good” brain chemical. The trouble is that cheap dopamine becomes very expensive. The more that our children come to rely on our external judgments about their behavior, the less we will find them helpful (unless they’re receiving more and more praise).

Emerson said, “the reward for a thing well done is to have done it.” If your children help, don’t give them the verbal equivalent of a doggy biscuit. To acknowledge them, say thanks. And let it be. 

4. Consider your ratio of correction/direction vs. connection

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who always tells you what to do and when to do it and demands that you hurry up and do more or corrects you for doing it poorly—all the time—you probably avoid listening to them. You would rather be listening to anyone else.

But when someone who truly sees, hears, and values you asks for your help, you’re always more inclined to listen and participate in what they’ve asked you to do. Spend time building relationships together, doing things together, and working out solutions together. Correction creates a desire for compliance far more than correction and direction. 

5. Remember your children are illogical and irrational

Just accept it. The reason that your child ignores you, screams at you, refuses to help, and behaves like a child is because he or she is a child! When our expectations for our children’s behavior are congruent with our child’s actual developmental reality, their tantrums and refusals make sense. 

This isn’t about setting a low bar. Rather, it’s shifting our mindset to acknowledge that our children have limited capacity. You wouldn’t sit at a piano and expect to play a concerto if you hadn’t had time to learn, practice, and refine. To play well requires time, development, and learning. It’s the same for our children.

And just because they can do something one day doesn’t mean they can do it every day. Tiredness, hunger, feeling overwhelmed, and all of those other things I’ve written about above can interfere with what they can do, and make them illogical and irrational.

6. Stop making life all about your kids

My final idea is a little provocative. When we make life all about our children, they feel a level of expectation and entitlement. They anticipate that we’re there to do more than simply support and guide them. We’re there to serve them. If we can teach them that life is better when they help others, think of others, engage with others, and live for others, we’ll find they are more likely to help out willingly—and enjoy the opportunity.

Two Bonus Principles

The ideas above are comprehensive. They encompass the simple and mundane to the advanced and profound. But in all of these strategies, two other principles will often help. I share them briefly below:

  1. Where you can, offer a clear rationale for your requests. If your child understands the why of what you’re asking, he or she is much more likely to comply because the request makes sense. 
  2. Make it fun. While everything doesn’t have to be fun, and life isn’t always a circus, tasks, jobs, or chores are always easier when they’re enjoyable. 

When Emilie chose not to respond to my request to shut the front door, I had all of these alternatives at my disposal. I chose a different path. As Emilie scootered up the street to play, I chuckled to myself. I relished her delight in life. I savored her voice carrying up the street to her friends as she called to them to say she was coming to play. And then…I closed the door myself. And that’s not really such a big deal.

Dr. Justin Coulson is a bestselling author, husband, and father of six. His latest book is Miss-Connection.

Editor's Note: This post is a lightly edited version of a longer essay that appeared on Dr. Coulson's Happy Families Blog under a different title. It is used here with permission. Read the original essay here.