Helping Kids Listen to You: 5 Easy Steps

Jan 11, 2010

The class I teach at the University of South Florida is called Interpersonal Relations in Counseling. Despite its formal title, it is essentially a communications course. I spend an entire week covering the chapter on listening. What is interesting to me, and especially to students, is the marked difference in listening and hearing. One is a voluntary, cognitive process (listening) and the other is an involuntary, biological process (hearing). When considered in terms of our comprehension of the spoken word, in order to listen and not merely hear, we have to learn how and practice the skills.

Okay, so what does this have to do with your kids refusing to do their chores? It ties in, I promise. I can almost guarantee that each and every time that you speak to your children, they hear you. However, you often must feel that your voice disappears into the din of your busy home when your kids “ignore” your requests. In light of the discovery that listening is more than hearing, your children are likely choosing not to listen.

So, how do you help your children learn to master listening to you? Good news – It actually is easier than you may think. Kids are surprisingly adaptable, especially when they are given the chance to practice their new-found skills. So, here are some ways to encourage your children to listen to you.

Tip 1: Get on their level.

I have mentioned this in several other posts, but eye contact is crucial for children understanding the importance of the message and for focusing on what they need to do after they receive it. It makes it very clear that they need to pay attention, and it allows you a manner in which to confirm that they did. Squatting or kneeling seems to be the best way to do this.

Tip 2: Be concise.

As parents, we tend to over-explain things in an effort to communicate well. However, children only process so much, and our message ends up getting lost in the excess. Try to be brief and specific about what you want. “You need to clean your room in the next twenty minutes” is better than “Your room needs to be cleaned today because Grandma and Grandpa are coming over later, and they are going to want to see your new bed, and if it is a mess, they aren’t going to be able to walk…”. You get the picture.

Tip 3: Use statements instead of requests.

Many parents, in an effort to be kind, ask their kids to comply rather than stating expectations. You do not need to be harsh in your approach to be effective, but should stay away from making requests that leave things open-ended. For example, you may find yourself saying, “Tommy, can you please pick up your toys?” This allows Tommy to consider your request, and refuse. Alternately, if you say, “Tommy, it is time to pick up your toys now”, you are clearly communicating what he needs to do, and that it is non-negotiable.

Tip 4: Set them up for success.

Your kids should be given fair, realistic and age-appropriate tasks. Your three year olds should not be told four things to do at once, as they live in the moment and will forget. Also, a toddler probably can’t fold clothes well, but can place them in the correct drawers. Similarly, your ten year old can work off of a multi-chore list, and can be asked to do things that require greater responsibility, like feeding the dog.

Tip 5: Acknowledge when they listen.

We spend a lot of time focusing on when our kids don’t do what we ask, and it is easy to forget to recognize them when they are obedient. When you acknowledge their appropriate behavior, you are reinforcing your appreciation for their respect, thus encouraging them to repeat the action. Additionally, when you discuss their obedience, keep it focused on them. Try to avoid praise phrases like, “I am happy you listened” or “It makes me feel good when you do what I ask.” Instead, encourage them with, “You chose to do everything on your list” or “You worked hard to get it all done.” (See Praise vs. Encouragement videos and articles for more detailed explanations of the difference).

It is a learning process for children (and adults!) to listen effectively. It takes more that just processing the words spoken to you – and it takes practice to become better at it. While you work on the tips mentioned above, your kids will work on listening like champs!

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