Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

My Child Never Listens To Me

"I nag and I nag and I nag. He just doesn't listen. For example, I tell him to turn off the TV, it's time to do his homework. No response. So I say it again. He still doesn't respond. Sometimes I repeat myself a half a dozen times. Finally, I stand in front of the TV and scream at him and he looks up and says `huh?' And you know what really gets me? Then he's annoyed because I interrupted his program and yelled at him."

Sound familiar? There are few things more annoying to parents than when a child doesn't listen. We begin by asking nicely. It's usually a reasonable request, and not necessarily one that would even take that much effort on the part of the child. But we get no response. As we repeat ourselves, we begin to feel more and more angry, out of control, insulted, and disrespected. Ultimately, we explode at our child and she is finally motivated enough to do what we've asked. One parent told me that she deliberately raises her voice, because that's the only thing that seems to "work" with her daughter. But does it have to be this way? Is it necessary for parents to lose their temper in order to get a child to listen? Is "yelling" an appropriate technique to hone a child's listening skills?

I believe that yelling actually works to the detriment of the child, and excuses her from listening, rather than teaching her how to listen.

In Robert Fulghum's book "All I Ever Really Needed to Know, I Learned In Kindergarten," he tells a story about a village in the South Pacific where "a unique form of logging" is practiced. He says that when a tree is too big to be cut down with an ax, one of the villagers who has special powers goes to the tree each morning and screams at it at the top of his lungs. After thirty days of screaming, the tree dies and falls over. The villagers claim that it works because screaming at living things kills their spirit.

This is definitely true with our children. Enough screaming at our children will slowly kill their spirit, their inner motivation. Without that inner motivation, they become less and less likely to cooperate.

"But," parents claim, "yelling works." There's a reason that it works. It works because your raised voice and harsh words serve as the child's cue to listen. Children tune out nagging because they know they don't have to listen yet. Then, when you raise your voice, your child tunes back in because he knows the nagging is over and it's time for business. In other words, parents who nag, then yell, have conditioned their children to respond only to the yelling. In order to teach your child to listen, you'll have to pick a different "cue" which will send the signal that you mean business. This "cue" will not only teach your child to listen, but also to take responsibility for turning off the TV, doing his homework, picking up his toys, or whatever you're asking . In addition, it won't kill his spirit in the process.

The first step is stop nagging. Nagging means repeating yourself over and over. If you want your child to listen the first time, then you must say things only once.

The second step is to expect that your child will not respond. After all, she hasn't had to respond the first time in the past, why should she start now? Like any new habit or skill, teaching your child to listen will take a little time. Be patient.

The third step is to be prepared to take some sort of action. Children learn more from action than words, and the bottom line is that nagging is only words. To warn your child that you mean business, and to replace her old "cue" to listen with a new "cue," give her a choice. Say "Either turn off the TV or I'll turn it off." By using an "either / or" choice, you will condition your child to use the "either / or" as her cue to listen. Then, if your child still doesn't respond, act on the choice you gave by, in this case, turning off the television.

Obviously, it will be important for you to give choices that you can act upon. For example, you wouldn't want to say to an eight-year old boy whom you've asked to put on his coat "Either put your coat on or I'll put it on you," because if he didn't listen and then struggled with you when you went to act upon the choice, you'd probably lose the battle.

While choices aren't always easy to come up with at first, with a little practice and some proactive preparation (for example, if you know your child has particular difficulty listening to certain requests, or at a particular time of the day), you'll find them far more pleasant then the "nag, then yell" cycle you're used to.

It's also helpful to note that your child will probably throw a raging fit when you first begin to put this into practice. She's just trying to see if you'll change your mind. After all, she'd rather not have to listen. But if you stay firm, and simply say "It seems as though you're unhappy with this choice. Maybe next time you'll listen when I ask you to do something, and make a choice sooner so that I don't have to make the choice for you," you'll see that eventually she will calm down, and you'll be one step closer to teaching her the listening skills she needs to thrive in life.

Saying things once, giving a choice, then acting upon the choice is a pattern that holds true even if your child is screaming at you. Many times parents wait until their child is quiet before they request that he listen. The problem is that when you delay taking action, you pay off his yelling behavior. So he learns that if he doesn't want to listen, all he has to do is scream at you. This is not a pattern of behavior you want to encourage! Even if you think he can't hear you, speak softly and firmly, and carry through with both the choice and action.

Finally, be careful not to say "if," instead of "either" when giving the choice. For example: "If you don't turn that TV off now, I'll turn it off." Your child will hear "if" as a threat, and threats produce a rebellious response. Choices, on the other hand, promote responsible behavior.