7 mistakes we made trying to teach our kids to listen
I’m feeding my baby daughter, and my 3-year-old son begins to trawl the cupboard for anything that could be considered edible. I tell him “no snacks now” and encourage him to do a puzzle instead.
No response. The trawl continues.
I continue feeding the baby, and answer questions that are being pelted at me from our 7 year old, as well as keeping an eye on the 5 year old to make sure the paint stays on the paper and does not become a new shade for the dining table. All the while wondering how could I possibly make my son not only listen, but actually hear what I’m saying to him.
By now my 7 year old is cranky because I’m “not listening” to her. (She’s right, my attention is split four ways.)
She’s cranky because she’s a 7 year old, she’s got lots of questions that need answering, lots of stories to tell and she just wants my undivided attention; not an unreasonable request, really.
My son is getting increasingly frustrated in his desperate search for food.
He wants fooood! He begins to cry with such desperation, you’d think the 27 minutes that passed since he last ate, was more like 27 days.
Luckily the baby is very tolerant of this situation, and continues drinking her milk without distraction.
This is my house at 5 o’clock.
Head count of crying kids is now at two, and the dinner cooking on the stove needs my attention. I may start crying too. I continue telling my son that “no, you cannot have a snack.” He then asks me seven times for something to eat. SEVEN. I tell him “no” seven times. He’s not listening, I’m not listening, no one is listening.
Teaching Kids to Listen.
Between us, Nancy and I have 6 kids aged 8 months to 7 years. So in my quest for a child that hears my instructions, we recently sat down and pooled our parenting mistakes on what we’ve done to get our kids to listen.
We’re no parenting experts but we’re sure you can relate to the blunders we’ve had in teaching kids to listen.
These are our keys for you to unlock better listening, cooperation, fewer power struggles and more peaceful days with your kids.
1. We forgot how old they are.
In the midst of four kids of different ages and abilities, I regularly expect the same of our 3 year old as I do of our 7 year old. Now that’s not really fair is it? Of course not!
But I do it. All. The. Time.
Then in a more rational thought, I try to think back to when our 7 year old was 3, and the same with out 5 year old and I just can’t quite remember what was achievable and understood, and what wasn’t.
So I did some research to help my cause (and my memory). Here’s a few key points I took away from Raising Children that are helping me have appropriate expectations when giving instructions and requests to each of my children.
1-2 years: one or two words, one request at a time. eg ‘toys away’
2-3 years: three of four words, one request at a time. eg ‘toys away over there’
3-4 years: full sentence, one request at a time. eg ‘please put your toys away in the box’
4-5 years+: full sentence, no more than two requests at a time. ‘please put your toys away in the box, then put the box in the shelf’
2. They made chaos. And we added to it.
When my son’s brain is in overdrive desperately searching for that food that he must have, it’s really easy to get frustrated and angry. At 5 o’clock when the juggle is at it’s peak, the last thing I want to do is patiently tell my son seven times to stop digging in the cupboard. I want to yell it at him, and I have.
Turns out that responding to chaos with chaos doesn’t really produce a child who listens well.
He got a shock the first few times I yelled. But very quickly, the same situation needed more and more yelling and screaming to get him to stop.
So now, in that moment of chaos, I count backwards from 10, until I (usually) have regained enough strength to patiently respond to his digging. It’s not rocket science, and my goodness it’s hard to do, but it works. It really does.
3. Ask, ask and ask again. Then ask again.
So many times I think the kids are listening – and to an extent they are, but actually their attention is mostly focused on something else, so I end up asking them the same question precisely 75,246 times before getting a response.
I’m guilty of this too. Big time. My husband will ask me something mid-cooking, or just as I’m set up painting with the kids, and I assure him I’m listening. Yep, absolutely definitely listening. Then 4 hours later when I try to remember what it is he asked me to do. Ummm…forgot. That’s because my mind wasn’t focussed on what he told me.
Ahhh… mindfulness, you wonderful thing.
Mindfulness; to be fully aware of the thoughts going in and out of our heads.
I now ask the kids to stop, look at me and ensure they are actually listening to what I’m saying. And I do the same when I’m spoken to as well
4. We rambled.
Often times, I find myself rambling rather than conveying the message I really want to send. I owe credit to our wonderful preschool Kindy Korner for offering unlimited support and ideas on this one!
“How many times have I told you? No snacks before dinner. Please stop asking.” Quickly followed by “What did I just say?”
I was convinced I was encouraging listening by saying this, but I would rarely see results.
So I freed myself, and my son, from the extra words. I now focus on saying the same message, in the shortest way possible.
5. We all just want to connect.
After many years as a parent, I finally asked myself ‘is the yelling, demanding and the subsequent tantrum really about the snack’?
The internal battle for our kids is not always about the obvious. Sure, my son, would eat anything I offered him when he goes hunting for a snack, but what I realised he actually wants, and needs, is me to be silly and laugh, and play wrestling games with him. But when humans are void of their most basic needs – sleep and food - we lose the ability to connect and have fun. That’s parents and kids included!
We realised all our kids want is our undivided attention, our love and our affection. Seems so obvious when I say it out loud. The reality is we can’t dish that out at any time of every day (least of all 5 o’clock power hour!).
Our kids have mastered the art of causing havoc when they yearn for our love and attention. Roll on 5 o’clock!
So we discovered that, deep down, they actually want to mend the havoc, but they just don’t know how. Instead, they frantically search the cupboard for a snack.
I do a few silly faces; try to include my son in the cooking (which usually adds more time, but it reduces the battle so I take the hit on that one), and maybe even squeeze in a quick wrestle before dinner, and the havoc is on it’s way to being mended.
6. A little too much ‘no’.
Ahhh…the art of re-framing! It makes a world of difference when helping teach kids good listening skills. For a long time, I’ve focussed on what our kids can’t or shouldn’t do.
“Don’t push your sister”
“You didn’t clean anything up in your room like I asked you to” or the real gem,
“Don’t open the cupboard again!”
By rejigging the words, I’ve found more response than I ever thought possible!
”Show me how you can be gentle with your sister.”
“Your room needs cleaning. Let’s have a race, and I bet we can get it all done together in a few minutes!”
“Can you help me cook dinner so it’s ready faster?”
7. We said it, but we didn’t do it.
We learnt this sure fire way to make sure our kids never listen to us.
We threatened but we didn't act. Here’s how we did it:
This usually happens over a toy battle between two kids. You know “give that toy back or I’ll take it away”. Of course, they don’t give the toy back, I get distracted and I don’t take it away.
This is the unrealistic threat that would never really happen. There have been many of these on road trips in my family. Confined spaces seem to bring it on. There’s fighting and squealing going on in the back seat, and after many attempts to calm the troops, I belt out “stop the fighting or we’ll leave you on the road to walk there yourself!”
Would we ever really do that? NO WAY.
So I now take a brief moment to be measured when planning my threats and consequences to ensure they can, and will, actually be done.
5 o’clock in my house is still noisy and chaotic. But we’re working on some new compromises to get our ears primed to listen, really listen. It’s a work-in-progress.
Listening skills are really important to Nancy and I.
Not just because we want our kids to stop trawling the cupboard in search for food when we tell them not to, (seven times!) but, because it’s a key focus of the GOYOkids method.
We’re dedicated to giving kids fun, engaging ways to improve their listening skills.
Developing good listening skills is a valuable investment of a parent or educator’s time dedicated to a child , especially when it comes to building strong professional and personal relationships later in life. Not to mention the ability for a child to follow basic instructions to support the transition from preschool to primary school.
Being an effective listener means engaging your ears and your brain so you're tuned in to what's being said (“no, you cannot have a snack right now”) - something that takes time to learn how to do.
That’s hard, right? I know when I try and listen to a podcast, or even some playground conversations with other parents, I’ll be honest - my mind quickly wanders and I have to work hard to really focus, retain and absorb the words I’m hearing.
For children, it’s no different.
Listening is one of the many skills that kids are born ready to learn.
I’m convinced they want to listen, and follow instructions, they really do!
Their brains are primed from birth to understand those basic concepts like listening, following directions, sleeping, and eating.
So consider the opportunity for your kids to learn by listening, and only by listening.