Children have an uncanny ability to listen when they want and not listen when you need. As useful as our cajoling, threatening and yelling can seem to be in the moment, those strategies never last. They aren’t effective long-term solutions. It is important to understand that people are born to be great listeners. It’s true. We have an incredible ability to focus. The tricky thing is, this ability ability has to be honed and practiced. That can take patience and pushing through frustration. Are you up for it? The rewards far outweigh the costs. You can help yourself by optimizing how you communicate with your child to help them be a better listener and communicator. When you are able to apply these tips instinctively and consistently your child will become an incredible listener. When they practice the same in their endeavors there is no telling how far they can go. Communication after all is a skill that enhances almost every other skill.
Attention Before Action
Did your child really hear you? How sure are you? It isn’t fair to expect your child to listen or action whatever you have asked when they may not have heard your complete message. One of the most remarkable things about children is the ease with which they can get completely absorbed in whatever they are doing. They can get completely absorbed in it. As adults, we often struggle to get into these deeply present ‘flow’ states. We shouldn’t punish them for their ability to do it.
Step one to getting your child to listen to you is to ensure that you have their complete attention. Getting this part right will help solve a lot of listening related issues that ensue. Luckily, it can become fairly easy once you understand and practice the basic components. A major part of human decision making is driven by emotion. Keep this fact top of mind when dealing with children. The key components of maximizing attention are outlined below. Using them together compounds their effectiveness.
Say Their Name
Use your child’s name to get their attention. Nicknames work too. Our brains are wired to respond to the sound of our own name. Whatever you like to call them (and they like to be called) keep it consistent and take advantage of this built in feature. Using a name helps to elicit a response. Getting a ‘yes’ or eye contact provides the ideal starting point.
Secure Eye Contact at Their Level
If you want to deliver a message to your child, sustained eye contact is the best way to make sure it is getting across. An easy way to make this even more impactful is to do it at eye level. This method is psychologically comfortable for the physically smaller individual and allows you to instantly calibrate to their attention levels moment to moment.
As basic as this sounds, the fundamentals are fundamental for a reason. Make sure that your child can hear your entire message. We should be aware that a TV show’s theme song, Spotify playlist or a barking dog can drown out parts of your intended message. On the flip side, avoid communicating at a higher volume than what is required.
Use the Right Tone
Parents know that it can be hard to keep our patience and calm at all times. When a child isn’t listening precisely you need them to, it can be absolutely infuriating. It is important to handle it for the greater good. Getting angry or snappy with a child because you are underslept and had a bad day won’t matter to them in that moment. They are kids. Keep calm and happy. You made that wonderful little human in front of you, even if they aren’t behaving exactly how yo want them to in that moment.
Use Fewer Words
Less is More. Make your words count because each second of your child’s attention is precious and waning. We are often working with bonus time before we know it. Be clear with your message. Don’t underestimate the power of using one word rather than a lecture. Saying ‘shoes’ or ‘potty’ can really deliver. Make your expectations and the why behind them as clear as you can as quickly as you can.
Describe Rather than Lecture
Make descriptive statements to your child rather than lecture them. Lecturing can sometimes come of as it’s annoying cousin nagging. There is a fine line there. Talk about what you want (describe) rather than what you don’t want (lecture). Things like ‘clean hands please’ and ‘I see clothes on the floor’ will increase your chances of success.
If you would like to guide them towards something, try using ‘when and then’ statements. It allows you to quickly reward listening. A great example is ‘when you have washed your hands, then we can eat some strawberries’.
A related ‘judo’ move is offering your child a choice. If forces an answer beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and allows you to work with your child to get it done. This can be things like putting socks on before or after breakfast or selecting a color of toothpaste.
Mean what You Say
Don’t ever allow what you are saying to fall on deaf ears. The easiest way to find yourself there is by not following through on your claims. If you offer consequences for not doing something whether positive or negative, do your absolute best to follow through. The expectation that what you are sharing is empty threats or promises zaps you of your power. Don’t be fighting a battle you’ve already lost.
Understand and Apply Positive Reinforcement (Make Listening Rewarding)
Remember my mention of emotions being a vital component of decision making? Using positive reinforcement properly harnesses this and brings about many healthy and happy emotional states. Our brains are designed to enjoy feeling things like happiness, pride, love and surprise. Why not use this beautiful gift to make listening rewarding?
Positive reinforcement is the act of immediately and clearly rewarding desired behavior. With time (and consistency), a strong link is established between the act and our emotional response. So much so that our body begins to associate experiencing the first with the second automatically. The more powerful the positive emotional response in your child, the better the reward. Rewards can range anywhere from genuine praise to actual things and activities that your child enjoys. The key factors in selecting a reward are:
- That it can be replicated; and
- That it can be delivered as close to the execution of the desired behavior as possible.
The second point is vital. A smaller window allows for overlap of experience. The quicker the feedback the better for everyone involved. Consistency and patience are key.
Another amazing way to reward listening is to give children as active a role as possible in the process. Co-operating and working together with your child to get something done builds upon positive emotions and thought patterns. Doing so provides incredible long-term leverage. Saying ‘can you help me put the milk away before it spoils’ for example, is a great way to get the message across. It insinuates collaboration while also providing a teaching moment. There are consequences to leaving the milk out. Your child should understand them. Don’t forget to reward the desired behavior when it happens.
One last thing. As much as it can be a default mechanism, getting angry and ordering will only get you so far. A child’s sense of identity grows as they do. No one wants to be told what to do or feel threatened or forced into a corner. Anything your child does listen to will be because they felt forced to do so. This doesn’t facilitate long-term or healthy behavioral change. Aim to be better than that. Offer suggestions rather than orders. Doing so gives them a greater sense of freedom and involvement in the end result.
Show Them You Care and Domesticate Your Emotions
Children have an uncanny ability to assess the emotional state we are in. Whether it is body language or our tone, they are receptive to the cues we are giving off in that moment. Try as we might, we can set off their radar. The only way to truly combat that feeling is to show them that you care by giving them your full attention. You can’t fake this. Get hold of your emotions and your head space. The keys to full attention are as follows:
- Maintain full eye contact
- Give them your full focus whenever possible, avoid multi-tasking
- Nod to show that you understand
- Repeat the last few words they say
- Get in close proximity, smaller distances provide shorter feedback loops
Project warmth and love. They show and mean a lot. It is more important (and difficult) to keep negative emotions like anger, guilt and frustration under control. This is harder to do but ultimately makes a huge difference. You don’t have to be a robot. Keep in mind that you are showing your child the healthy way to communicate and express one’s emotions physically and verbally. Nobody is perfect. You will slip up and have your less than ideal moments. Own them. Show your child how to take responsibility, show accountability and ask for forgiveness. There is power in apologizing genuinely.
All of the above can be best manifested by practicing empathy with your child. Think of empathy as the opposite of judgement. Try to appreciate where your child is coming from as best you can. Get in their shoes and see things from their eyes and thought process. Our kids deserve nothing less. Kids don’t often have the same priorities that we do. How can they understand and appreciate them? There is rarely anything malicious in their actions. It is amazing how our treatment of our kids impacts how they respond. Be the best example you can be right now and keep working at it.
Seek Collaborative Solutions
The most genius way to get people to do something is to help them convince themselves that they came up with the idea to do it. A major part of our emotional decision decision making process is our reflex to rationalize it with logic afterwards. It is both satisfying and automatic to convince ourselves that we reasoned our way to the decision we made. Making your child a part of the listening and decision making process is an easy and useful way to do this.
A great place to start is by encouraging them to identify and express their emotions. Ask them if they are feeling a certain way. Younger children often need and appreciate a word they can use to express how they are feeling. Make sure they understand the meaning and feelings associated with these emotional states. Expressing that they are frustrated and tired can often help us understand where they are coming from and why they are acting a certain way. We have all been in situations where our ability to listen was compromised intentionally or not.
As children age, try to have them suggest solutions. Genuinely ask them for tips and advice on how to get them to listen better. Do they have suggestions they feel will result in them listening more often or more precisely? Remember to focus on the behavior/action you want. Avoid thinking about and talking about the behavior you don’t want. Our brain will focus on the behavior part rather than the ‘don’t or do’ associated with it.
Try to ask open-ended questions. This is effective both in the heat of the moment and during discussions. It encourages your child to communicate and produce something you can work with. It is also a lot more fun than dealing with kicking, screaming and crying. Try to get them to question their actions or lack thereof. Help them expand their thinking and ability to verbalize. Open-ended questions are ones that require responses that are longer than one or a couple of words. Questions that lead with ‘what was your favourite part…’ or ‘how would you like me to…’ can provide profound insight.
If the need to discuss negative consequences arises, the most effective thing to do is give them a choice. They can either comply and be rewarded for it or choose not to comply and accept what comes with that choice. It empowers them to make a decision that impacts their immediate future. Life is full of lessons. Lessons are our reference points to remember what we learned by doing. There is no substitute for doing. Try wording it like ‘do you want ice cream tonight or not having to get your hair done.’ As much as they may feel that in the moment they do not want their hair done, the ice cream represents what could be. It can be a very effective reward. Not getting it when you could have teaches us that maybe it’s not worth missing out on next time.
Start Early, Start Small, Build Routines
Starting early means providing your child with advance notice whenever it is useful and feasible. Do you think it is easier to get a child to leave a park or stop engaging in something they enjoy when they have been given a warning or when its a surprise? You know the right answer. Practice giving your child a five minute warning whenever possible. It will not eliminate resistance, but it will make life a lot easier. They have been warned and can prepare for it. It gives them a time frame they can comprehend and an understanding of what is coming.
Starting small represents a dedication to focused effort and incremental progress. Think and embrace baby steps. Start with elementary listening requirements and build from there. Focusing for 30 seconds at a time can quickly become a 25 minute session with a little help and practice. Move the target close in order to build confidence and momentum. There is no such thing as starting too small. A great way to do this is to practice focus and attention with something they enjoy. This could be a book or a favourite game. Getting your child to dedicate their undivided attention to you builds the practice. Getting them to enjoy it amplifies it.
Building routines with your kids encourages habit formation. Habits are as human as our basic emotions. They put our brains on a type of autopilot. As you can imagine, this mode can be a major factor is getting messages to be executed. Imagine watching your child go through their nighttime routine. Now imagine having to ask them to do each step repeatedly and in sequence every night. Brushing teeth, combing hair, getting settled in bed. These can all be smoothed out via established routines. Keep things consistent and sequenced. When a child knows what is expected of them and is rewarded for doing so, it increases their success rate. Getting to this point is incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. Your child will act in their best interest and decide to do it voluntarily. You will have delivered the message.