5 Out-of-the-Box Ways to Make Your Child “LISTEN!!!”

MotheringBigImageOne of the most frequent questions I get is, How do I get my child to listen to me? What lingers in the roots just beneath this question is, How do I get her to respect me? The two are intimately entwined.

As so often happens with Life’s sticky questions, sometimes we can unstick things a bit by turning the question around: Rather than How can I get my child to listen to me?, a frustrated parent can get far more traction by asking, How can I make myself more “listenable”?”

The fact is, you can never “make” your child do or be anything! Oh sure, we’re lulled into the comforting illusion that we can during the very early years, when their sheer existence and protection depends upon us in very basic ways (not to mention we’re way bigger than them!).

But in a fistful of years that streak by in a blur we are face to face with them… and with the sobering reality that they can and will do what they choose regardless of what we “make” them do. For many parents this is like that classic nightmare in which it’s time for the final exam, and you realize you haven’t attended any of the classes!

This is the time to be preparing for the final exam that comes at puberty and adolescence. Here are five ways to ensure your child will listen to you, both now and later:

KidWon'tListen1. Talk less… and more clearly –  This is especially effective with the young child (under seven). When working with parents I often ask them to cut back on their chatter with their toddler or pre-schooler by at least 50% so they avoid TTD (Talk To Death) syndrome, which is reaching epidemic proportions. Do you remember how the adults were portrayed in the animated versions of Charlie Brown? A noise-skein of Whhhaaaaaaa – whaaaaaaaa – whaaaaaaaaa that had no meaning (neither for Charlie and his pals nor for us the viewer). Point made. This is how most of what we say bounces off our young children: just so much white noise!

Say less and have it mean more. This helps cultivate the essential nourishment of wonder while also avoiding TTD (Talk it To Death) syndrome. Over-explaining and other yammering almost always covers up a lack of truth or conviction in the exchange. We need to always check the reason why we want to say something to a child: Is it based on our wisdom or our anxiety? Does it come from a place of real knowing, or a place of fear? If it comes from a place of real knowing and complete conviction within you that it is correct, the child will usually behave in harmony with it. (A good example is that children almost never fuss over putting on seat belts, largely because within the mind of the parent there is 100% conviction: seat belts are an utter non-negotiable and the child picks up on this conviction.) If it’s coming from worry or insecurity (which includes our need to manipulate them), we best refrain from speaking.

When we offer endless choices to the young child… or engage in extended explanations, justifications or negotiations… or phrase our language in equivocal terms (“Do you want to get your PJs on?”  “It’s time to get ready for bed now, okay?) we undermine our standing with him. Talking to a young child in this way essentially enlists him as a co-decision-maker, with a level of influence and responsibility that makes him extremely anxious — though he doesn’t know why. This anxiety and insecurity (“Mom doesn’t really know what should happen now…”) reorients his biochemistry and neurophysiology toward protection rather than growth. And it’s hard for him to listen when he’s in protection mode.

This is a vicious cycle: the more the child perceives that you are looking to her to participate in important decisions (and to a young child even the basics seem very important), the less trust she’ll have in you, the more insecure she will feel, and the more controlling and bossy (i.e., “difficult”) she will become. And the less she’ll listen.

She wants you to be the calm, loving leader who knows, without consulting her, what’s happening next, what color shirt she should wear, what she’s having on top of her cereal this morning. That lets her relax back into optimal growth mode, because her world is safely in order. And she’s much more apt to listen.

2. Listen — The primary mode of learning for the young child is imitation. First and foremost, be what you want to see in your child. Do you listen? To your child? To a person who tries to engage you while out in the world? This requires actual effort. It requires a mindful slowing down from the techno-speediness of today’s iTwitterFaceLinkInPod culture, in which our “wildly overstimulated brains” have been trained to follow the default impulse, “What’s next?”

If you were the proverbial fly on the wall looking in on how people are living in today’s must-go-faster world, you’d find that many homes of even the youngest children echo with the chill of cool, expedient efficiency. We’ve become a hyper-practical, results-focused culture too often too busy to slow down to child time, which is inherently more molasses-paced. To kneel down to our child’s level to listen to her story, to put our arms around our son and look at that bug he just caught, doesn’t often jibe with our lockstep schedule. But when your child can sense (and they do sense, keenly) that you really are listening, this fosters a deep level of trust in you… and children (and teens) listen to those they trust. (And don’t to those they don’t.)

3. Meditate — This is one of the stealthiest “big-bang” parenting tools around, and way too under-recognized as such! Meditation has turned up in the research as a superstar for increasing wellbeing in many different areas both physical and mental / emotional. To begin a meditation practice, you don’t have to go out and find a master or even a group; simple guidelines are available everywhere (including my book), and even just five minutes a day, done on a reasonably regular basis, reduces stress, invites health, and cultivates the ability to direct your own mental focus — all of which makes for a bankable investment in the success and enjoyment of your parenting and your child’s wellbeing.

And here’s the secret power of meditation for our topic today (How do I get my child to listen?): meditation practice helps you answer Yes to an essential question –  Do I as a parent have mastery over something as fundamental as the movement of my own thoughts? And here’s the deal: your child wordlessly perceives your level of self-possession, and when your answer to that question is Yes, this in turn fosters a respect for you that is deep, implicit, and rarely wavers. Many common discipline issues therefore never even materialize. And, they listen to you!

4. Be surprising — I write a lot about the importance of rhythm in the life of children, and indeed, rhythm is one of the 7 principles at the heart of my book. But one of the greatest gifts of a consciously rhythmic family life is the delightful refreshment of breaking the rhythm, especially for your teens or tweens, who will be especially enchanted when you’re willing to exit the sameness.

“Let’s forget about homework and go to a double-feature!”

“Instead of picking up dinner from the restaurant, let’s spend that money on flowers for all over the house and have PB&J sandwiches for dinner.”

Aim on occasion (once every month or two?) for something impromptu, unexpected, whimsical — and if it’s absurd or outrageous, so much the better! Remember, your inner experience of being a teenager is being awakened by virtue of living with one, so conspire with your inner teen to find ways to delight and surprise your child(ren), and believe me, they’ll keep listening to you. They won’t want to miss anything!

5. Be inspiring — A coaching client of mine was saying her 7-year-old daughter was being disrespectful, and I’m sure I stunned her by asking point blank: Do you behave in a way that inspires respect? When she really got honest about it, the answer was “no.” For example, she had a room in her house that she was always saying she was going to de-clutter but never did. That was her a-hah. As she cleaned up that room (and also de-cluttered her parenting style), her daughter’s attitude improved dramatically.

Our children are like another appendage of ours — they will act out whatever material in us that we aren’t owning or being congruent with. Our children are our mirrors.

And this intensifies as they enter adolescence: paradoxical to her seeming disinterest in all things parental, you will be subjected to the most unsparing scrutiny by your teen, your child who no longer looks up to you, literally, but rather, eye to eye with you. She so recently saw you as perfection personified but is now trained on you like a heat-seeking scope, watching for you to contradict your ideals, your word, your integrity… and hoping more than anything that you don’t. One of the supreme tests in parenting adolescents lies in their need for the adults around them to be steady, strong and sure in who they are, what they stand for, and whether their actions line up with their words.

In other words, are you listening to yourself??


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11 thoughts on “5 Out-of-the-Box Ways to Make Your Child “LISTEN!!!””

  1. Truly truly inspiring! thank you for giving such great advice and explainibg everything clearly. I finally understand :)

  2. Sounds great. But what about the widely-given advice to allow children some decision-making (which shirt out of a choice of two or three), which breakfast (from the ones you have in) so that they feel included and also to prevent tantrums and resistance. I know that if I didn’t foster independence in my son I would feel A like a dictator and B like I was doing him a disservice.

  3. Thanks for asking that, Hannah–because you’re right, this is frequently given advice. While it’s not entirely wrong in theory, it often veers into unsuccessful results in practice. Of course you don’t want your home to feel like a police state, and you don’t want your child to feel completely powerless. The problem comes when we get out of balance, and it is epidemic these days. Let me clarify:

    My basic rule of thumb for how many choices to offer a child in a day is the same as the classic (though rarely heeded anymore) equation for how many children to invite to his birthday party: the age of the child, plus one. So if he’s three, he gets four choices per day on average. Maybe three today and five tomorrow–we’re not going for rigidity here! And the choices (as in your example) are not open-ended, but a choice between two options, either of which is acceptable to you. And the choice is proffered by you, not demanded by her in the form of a protest against something you’ve already chosen. You can sometimes even say to the child (as long as you can say it in a loving way, as the gift that it is), “Relax, you’re not in charge.”

    A young child freighted with too many choices suffers the anxiety of having too much say in matters that should simply be decided by grown-ups. There is plenty of time ahead for the empowerment of more choice and greater autonomy, and the more we allow the young child her season of insouciance in which others are in charge, the more fully she can blossom into that next sphere of freedom. An article I once read that expressed this so well was entitled, “Freedom of Choice, or Freedom FROM Choice?”

    Keep an eye out for when you’re aiming to “prevent tantrums and resistance”–which is not the goal, but which is an understandable slippery slope that ALL of us parents have slid down at some point. I call it “the happiness trap”: we don’t want to encounter our child’s upset, so we let him or her push the boundaries further and further. We may *think* we’re doing so to grant the child a sense of empowerment, but often another dimension of what’s going on is that *their* upset tends to upset us in various ways. (This is a whole other article!) And lo and behold, our child becomes more and more a little tyrant–or at least this is what typically happens.

    There IS a time when it is developmentally appropriate for children to have more involvement in decision-making and policy-creation in the family, but it is not during their early years. Until the child is around seven, the healthiest form of family governance is indeed a benevolent dictatorship — with you as the calm, loving, authoritative leader.

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  5. Do you remember how the adults were portrayed in the animated versions of Charlie Brown? A noise-skein of Whhhaaaaaaa – whaaaaaaaa – whaaaaaaaaa that had no meaning (neither for Charlie and his pals nor for us the viewer).

    Uhhh, actually, Charlie and the kids invariably understand what the adult said and respond very politely. Oddly enough, I’ve heard dozens of people–always adults–express the perception that the adults in Charlie Brown are ignored. Typically an adult will say, “My kids ignore me so much that I feel like I’m talking like the adults in Charlie Brown!” but the fact is that the kids in Charlie Brown are responding completely differently from the kids in real life. This is really interesting, I think–it shows how little adults are paying attention when watching television with children, and it may point to deeper issues as well. I actually would love to have my child speak to me the way Charlie Brown speaks to adults!

    Anyway, this is overall a great article!

    About offering choices, here’s how it works in my experience (full article at http://articles.earthlingshandbook.org/2007/10/16/offering-choices/ ):
    Now that I’m a parent, I’ve been learning that even closed-ended choices (“Red shirt or blue?”) often are unhelpful to both parent and child. The usual parent-magazine rationale is that getting to choose the details (which shirt) distracts a child from the fact that he has no choice about the main event (getting dressed). There are times when that works. But as a general strategy for getting through the day, it has pitfalls, the biggest of which is that making all those choices takes a lot of time. A kid can get caught up in fretting over the ramifications of the blue shirt and whether the red might be better, whereas if you’d just pulled the blue shirt over his head without comment he might have kept babbling on about how he’s a Buffalo Puppy Airplane-Eater today and never worried about his shirt. Also, sometimes even a closed-ended choice gets a kid thinking that the issue is open to discussion, and he’ll start demanding other options that aren’t available.

    This leads me to the approach to choices I’ve learned since Nicholas started talking: Don’t start out by offering a choice; say what we’re going to do, and offer a choice only if he objects.

    1. Thanks, Becca, for freshening my thready memory re: Charlie’s and his peers’ polite responsiveness to the adults’ “wha-wha” voices. First of all, I just LOVE the idea of an Earthling’s Handbook! I report in my book that one of my spiritually-oriented friends would sometimes express empathy for her daughter—a spiritual being having a newly physical experience, needing to learn so many basics—by issuing the gentle, rather enchanting correction: “Darling, that’s not how it’s done here on Earth. Let me show you…” (Btw, this brought in another quality so helpful for disciplinary moments—humor!)

      Speaking of discipline, perhaps you and I will have to respectfully agree to disagree on your last point.

    2. Eek, Becca — so very sorry for what looked like horrible rudeness on my part, re: part 1 of my reply just…ending so abruptly. It was not meant to be a 2-part reply and to be honest with you, I didn’t realize the first paragraph and next line of my reply even MADE IT online! I was at a place with sh**-for-internet and by all appearances it just “went away.” This first couple weeks of the year it was in the back of my head to get back here and give you a proper reply, because I think it’s a really important point. Get this: I was just reminded of you and this comment, coincidentally enough, by noticing your comment on NPN’s post about de-cluttering! I was about to add a comment that refers to your experience, so I looked at your name, and voila.

      (First of all, I’m *so* happy to not have to try and recreate what I’d already written…especially since I may have forgotten to include the story of what my friend Laura used to say to her daughter, re: how Earthlings do things.)

      Okay, so… back to the part about respectfully disagreeing. Oops–first one more point of agreement: I second your entire 2nd paragraph, and especially appreciate you mentioning the somewhat cynical underbelly of many “choices” we give children — kind of a magician’s misdirection around the fact that they really don’t have true, *substantive* choice over whatever the main event is. (The same sort of thing happens with a lot of praise given to children: it is thinly-veiled manipulation toward a preferred behavior.)

      I’ll also add one more important, if somewhat more esoteric, aspect to your excellent points: Another effect on the child of having too many choices and discussion is a prematurely awakened sense of her own self (self-consciousness) and a premature focus on what she likes and doesn’t like. We all want our children to grow up generous, considerate of others, and not so materialistic, but all this mental activity focused on preferences tends to foster quite the opposite! (We parents can also serve as models in this area; let’s not make an issue of everything we feel and want.)

      Okay, the point on which we see things differently, which is in your last line — you offer Nicholas a choice only if he objects to what you say is happening. I respectfully implore you, Becca, to revisit this approach! Here’s a line from my book: “…and the choices are not open-ended, but a choice between two options (either of which is acceptable to you). And the choice is proffered by you, not demanded by him in the form of a protest against something you’ve chosen.”

      Our young children do NOT want veto power over their leaders (i.e., parents). It makes them feel insecure when we’re not authoritative in our convictions. Another excerpt from “Parenting for Peace”: “Rudolf Steiner said that one of the most harmful things for a child is to give him directions about what he is to do, and then reverse those directions; children’s confusion from unclear adult thinking lies at the heart of many behavioral and other problems. The keynote inner capacity children need to develop in these seven years [birth-seven] is to respect and obey wise authority. We need to model that, respecting our own authoritative decrees. So keep this little slogan in your awareness: What you say will have to stay!!”

      By the way, your Nicholas’ 3-year-old query, “Does that sound possible?” is beyond precious! He must be around 10 now, and I’ll bet he’s white-hot smart!!

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