One 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:
1. 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??