Sometimes, the reason a child doesn’t listen seems pretty obvious to an outsider. Little Jerome was tagging along with his mom on a mission. “Mom, can I have this?” he pleaded. They were in the cereal aisle, and his mom was comparing the labels of generic raisin bran and the brand name equivalent. He was pointing at the Fruit Loops a few feet away.
Mom glanced at him for a brief second, proclaiming, “No, Jerome,” and then continued her label analysis.
He got louder. “Mom! I want Fruit Loops. We never get Fruit Loops!”
Mom grew visibly irritated and knew where this might head if she didn’t quickly nip it in the bud. “Jerome, you know we are not getting Fruit Loops. Now put those back and get over here.”
Jerome was hesitant. “You listen to me, young man!” She was firm. “Do I need to put you in the cart?” He held the box close to his chest. Mom set the bran down and as if she knew she had an audience, huffed, “Why doesn’t this kid ever listen?” She took the Fruit Loops from her frowning son, lifted him into the cart, grabbed a couple of the bran boxes, and scurried away.
Why doesn’t my child listen to me?
As she rounded the corner, I silently answered her question. “Your son isn’t listening right now because it doesn’t seem like you are listening to him.”
Could it be that a significant reason why your child doesn’t listen well to you is that you’re not listening well to them?
Here’s how this mom could have shown she was listening: “Jerome, I see you really want to get some Fruit Loops. What do you love about them?” Perhaps he would say he likes the taste, the colors, and the prize inside.
Then Mom might say, “Show me your favorite picture on the box.” He’d take a little time to show Mom things as she affirms what he’s showing her. “That’s cool. I can see you like the brightest colors the most. But that is not a cereal we’re going to buy today because the sugar in it doesn’t help your brain and muscles grow strong.”
Jerome would likely complain. Then Mom might say, “It’s really sad when you don’t get what you want, isn’t it? Come on over here to the cart and tell me why we’re not getting the cereal.” He might sadly repeat it, and Mom would say, “You listened really well even though you’re sad. If you want, you can tell me more about your sad feelings while we keep shopping.” (Or maybe she’d give a high five for the listening, grab the raisin bran, and keep moving.)
These are just ideas. This interaction could have gone in a thousand different directions. But the point is that if mom worked to teach listening instead of just demanding it, her son would likely learn more about listening. When kids feel heard, even if they don’t get what they want, they feel valued. When they feel valued over time, they learn to listen too.
If you want your kids to listen well to you, show them what being a good listener is all about by being a good listener to them.
We have a podcast about this!
Want to learn more practical tools for listening? Check out the Connected Families podcast Episode 148: “Help! My Child Won’t Listen!”
What kind of listening do you model?
One mom reported, “My kids told me they know I’m not listening when they tell me about something, and I just say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’” You can’t expect your kids to listen to you if you’re not modeling it for them. This means you stop your agenda for a minute, focus on their words and the feelings displayed in their expression, and then respond to the details.”
So, before you work too hard on getting your kids to listen to you, take some time to reflect on your listening habits. Proverbs gives a pretty straightforward challenge about this:
“A person who answers without listening is foolish and disgraceful.” Proverbs 18:13 ICB
It can be an easy default for a stressed parent to answer without listening, but it’s highly rewarding when you experience the deeper connection that comes with learning a new habit:
4 tips to both model and encourage listening
Once you create a habit of listening well to your children, there are a few ways you can address them that improve the chances you’ll also be heard well:
- Stay calm. Kids don’t listen well when they feel insecure or attacked. Your calmness will help keep them open to you.
- Slow down and connect. When you’re saying something you really want them to hear, stop what you’re doing, look them lovingly in the eyes, and use clear, simple words.
- Ask your child to repeat what you said. Then, with a light-hearted tone, ask them if they understand what you’re requesting of them.
- Ask if there’s anything they want to say. If they have something to say, be sure you model good listening and repeat any important details.
Building listening routines around simple, everyday situations helps pave the way for a relationship characterized by good listening. Then, when you have something important to say, you have a routine you can use to say it, and a child’s heart is more prepared to receive it.
What does listening well look like in real life?
Here is a story from Nora, who took the Discipline That Connects online course, about her 7-year-old son David:
“David was really sad and upset about something Monday morning, and then, as often happens, his sadness turned to anger. Sean and I tried to gently help him, but he only got angrier. After a bit, he came toward me with a ‘stormy face.’ Thankfully, he didn’t try to hurt me, but it seemed to be heading in that direction.
I calmly looked at him and said, ‘It looks like you’re feeling upset, and I’m feeling a bit upset, so I was going to take a walk. You can join me if you want.’ He quickly joined me. It was a great way to help him enter into a calming activity that brought good listening and connection for both of us.”
Fast forward three years to see how David internalized important insights his parents had learned in the course. He modeled good listening with his brother Sam in a sweet, heartfelt way:
“Five-year-old Sam was angry before lunch, throwing the crunchy almonds and the other things I had given him to help him calm down. He resisted everything I tried. I was getting frustrated, and David calmly said, ‘I got it,’ and basically stepped in. Sam was so grumpy and angry that I didn’t think it would work. (Hmm, maybe David would get to experience how it feels when someone won’t calm down…)
Instead, he turned to Sam and, in a calm, gentle voice, said, ‘Would you like help, Sam?’ and he meant it. He really wanted to understand what Sam needed and how he could help. And Sam totally responded to it. I don’t remember the first thing they did, but then Sam needed to clean up some blocks, and David started helping him. After a little bit, David said, ‘Do you need more help, or can you get it from here?’ Sam responded in a happy voice, ‘I can get it.’ Later David explained, ‘Mom, you need to empathize first and then get low and go slow.’ He remembered my words from casual conversations when we were taking the course and getting coaching.
Oh, my word. It was Connected Families in a 10-year-old!”
It’s amazing how when we make it a habit to listen well to our children, they learn to listen well to us. And we are equipping them for healthy, connected relationships with others – even cranky little brothers!