Does it sometimes seem that talking to your child is like talking to a brick wall? How often does it happen that you tell a child something only to have him ask about the very same thing in a minute or two? How often do you give a direction, only to have a child do it wrong and then ask you why you didn’t tell him the right way?
Kids are used to tuning us out. We tend to blather on and on until our voices are just background noise. It’s not that we don’t talk about what we want our kids to do. It’s that we talk even though we know our kids aren’t listening. That’s not our children’s fault. It’s ours and we can do something about it.
A while back, I watched a father get the attention first of a very active four-year-old before he told her something important. The child was on a couch with her feet in her older brother’s lap. On those feet were hard-soled shoes with sharp corners at the heels. The little girl began waving her feet around, perilously close to her brother’s face.
Her father used a stern voice but at a normal volume. He called the child’s name. He said, “Please look at me.” He asked, “Are you listening to me?” and waited until the girl nodded “yes.” He then said that she was in danger of hitting her brother with her sharp shoes. He asked her to look at her shoes. He asked her to feel the edges of the heels. He said, ”When you put those shoes close to your brother’s face you could hit him. You could cut him.” He said, “Do you understand what I just said?” The little girl nodded yes.
At no time did the Dad restrain the girl or raise his voice. But his tone and his words demanded her attention. And that is the key: making certain one has a child’s attention before making a point. The child moved her feet away from her brother’s face and the problem did not come up again.
Too often we act hastily. We bark direct orders: “Keep your feet still!” without ever getting a child’s full attention. We reach and grab the shoes instead of grabbing the mind first. This dad was supremely effective because he got his daughter’s attention and held it while he made the correction that was needed.
Too often also we just talk without getting children’s attention first. Being able to switch attention from one thing to another is a skill children actually have to learn. They’re not born knowing how to do this and some kids are better at this or learn it more easily than others. But even for us adults, who are immersed sometimes in the ball game or our phones or a good book, pulling ourselves away from what we’re attending to, to pay attention to someone else, takes an effort. It takes a bit of time.
So, if you’re frustrated by your children’s lack of attention, try this:
- Ask for attention and wait until you get it. Look for eye contact and a shift of attention to you from whatever the child was doing before you spoke. Don’t say what you want to say before you have the child’s attention.
- Say what you want to say in a calm, reasonable voice. Speak in simple sentences that are easy to understand. Realize that your child’s mind was recently somewhere else, so she may need you to give her some idea of what you’re talking about before you get to the point you want to make about it.
- Ask for acknowledgement of what you just said. You can ask for a simple answer to “do you understand me?” or you can ask the child to repeat back what he thought he just heard you say.
Children are not mind-readers but they do want to get along with us. We’ve got to meet them halfway – maybe more than halfway – by only talking to children after we know they are listening. Everyone – even your child – is frustrated when the lines of communication drop.
By getting a child’s attention first, you help him to learn to listen to you. You make it clear that you say important things. You and your child will get along better, with less frustration and less hot air.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.