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Getting Your Child To Listen

Bonnie Harris


“My child doesn’t listen to me,” is one of the most frequent complaints I hear from frustrated parents. Of course he does—when you say something he likes.

The reason kids don’t pay attention is that they don’t like what they hear.

Most children anticipate either being blamed, threatened or told what they have to do that they don’t want to do. They become programmed to be parent deaf. Imagine if you recorded the dialogue between you and your child in any given day. What would you hear?

“Come on, hurry up. What are you doing?”

“How many times have I told you…?”

“Would you please leave him alone.”

“It’s time to turn off [whatever the screen of choice].”

“Get to bed.”

“You have to eat….”

“You can’t eat….”

“Stop it. Don’t do that.”

“You have to do your homework.”

“If you don’t…, you’re not going to get to…”

And this is kind.

Because they are told what to do all day long, they feel powerless so don’t pay attention—unless they are too afraid not to. This doesn’t mean letting children do what they want. But how do you like being told what to do?

The key is to give your child some power and put her in the driver’s seat, engage her in the process, problem solve so that she knows she won’t lose. And don’t punish or threaten so she doesn’t have to figure out how to avoid getting in trouble. Children pay attention when there is something in it for them. Never underestimate the power of normal, developmental egocentrism.

Here are 5 ways to encourage listening and cooperation:

  1. Put your directions in the positive. “Feet belong on the floor.” “See if you can make the baby smile.” “I don’t listen to words I don’t like. Take a breath and try again with words that you mean.”
  2. Give choices. “Do you want to get in the car seat by yourself or do you want me to put you in?” or “Do you want to crawl in like a lion or fly in like a bird?”

“You don’t have a choice about going to the doctor but you do have a choice about how you feel about being there. You can be really angry and hate it or you can decide that this is your body and no one can take care of it better than you and part of that is having a doctor check you over. What will you decide?”

“I want the toys picked up and I need your help. Do you want to pick up the red ones or the green ones? I’ll pick up the other colors.”

  1. Change threats to motivation. “As soon as you get out of the tub, we can read books. What one shall we start with tonight?”

“When the dishes are done, I will take you to your friends.”

“After your homework is done, then you can play a video game.”

“I would like your room cleaned sometime this week. If you do that for me, I will help you with….”

  1. Make your child the authority. Don’t direct. “What do you wish you could say to him if you could say anything without reprimand?” Then, “What do you think you could say when you see him next?”

“What do you want to get out of this school year? What grades would you like? This education is for you, it’s not for your parents or your teachers. It’s about what you want. Imagine overhearing your teacher in the hallway telling someone else about you. What would you like to hear her say?”

“I know you’ll be able to figure out how to make that happen.”

  1. Problem solve. “You don’t want to clean up the floor and I don’t want to either. What do you think we should do about it?” (True answer from a 3 yr. old, “I know, I’ll call in the dog and he can lick it up and I’ll clean up the rest with a paper towel.”

“I’m having a problem with how much of your time is spent on the computer. I know you love playing games. If you were the parent and I were you, how much time do you think I should have? Why?”

Of course there are times when we have to tell our children what to do and give a firm “no”, but when children know they are important, heard, and their agendas are taken into consideration, like anyone else, they will rise to challenges, be cooperative, and join in when things have to get done. When we respect our children and treat them like intelligent human beings who have ideas of their own, it’s amazing how much easier parenting can be.

Isn’t our job to empower our children so they can grow into their teen years and adulthood feeling strong, capable, and making good decisions. They must start that apprenticeship early on so it comes naturally when they are faced with tough situations. If children aren’t allowed to say “no” to us when they are little, how can we expect them to say “no” to a peer when temptation becomes great. If we tell them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, they don’t learn and then we get frustrated when they don’t take responsibility for themselves.

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook