Why Children Don't Listen

Dr. Jane Nelsen
July 14, 2009

"My child just doesn't listen." I hear this complaint from parents just about every day.  I tell them, "My guess is that you aren't giving them an example of what listening is about. You are probably lecturing too much.

Why Lectures Don't Work: How to Motivate and Inspire without Criticism

Lectures invite resistance and rebellion. How would you feel if someone was constantly saying to you, "Why can't you ever _____? How come you never _____? How many times do I have to tell you? When will you ever learn?  I can't believe you would do such a thing! Why can't you be more like your sister?" "Do this." "Do that." Would you find this motivating, or would you want to rebel?

Most parents have good intentions. They truly want to motivate their children to do better. So, how can they accomplish this? Start by listening. Start by being a closet listener. Just hang out with you kids and keep your mouth shut. Even older children will start talking if you quit talking. When my youngest daughter was a teenager, she always resisted my questions; but, when I started sitting on the edge of the tub while she put her makeup on, she would start sharing all kinds of things that were going on for her.

Another part of listening is to keep your mouth shut except to validate the feelings of your child or to acknowledge that you are listening by saying, "Anything else? Can you give me an example? or "Hmmmm."  This doesn't mean you can never talk. Just remember that Children will listen to you after they feel listened to.

Another way to motivate children is to stop telling and start asking what and how questions. Too many parents tell their children what happened, what caused it to happen, how they should feel about it, and what they should do about it. Instead, help children explore what happened, what caused it to happen, how they feel about it, what they can learn from it, and how they can use what they learned to avoid the problem in the future or to solve the problem now. The true meaning of education comes from the root word educare, which means "to draw forth." Too often parents try to stuff in, and then wonder why their lectures seem to go in one ear and out the other. Children truly learn when parents help them figure things out for themselves. It is important to note that it doesn't work to invite "exploration" at the time of upset. Ask what and how questions only after a cooling off period.

Asking can also be very simple. Instead of telling, "Don't forget your coat," you can ask, "What do you need to remember if you don't want to be cold outside?"  Instead of, "Brush your teeth," ask, "What do you need to do so your teeth won't feel skuzzy?" Instead of, "Stop fighting with your brother," ask, "What can you and your brother do to solve this problem?"

Asking invites children to think and then to use their personal power to decide what to do. Asking is much more likely to invite cooperation than telling.

A few more listening skills follow:

Reflective Listening. Reflective listening means that you reflect what you hear back to your child. It is best to use words that are a little different so you don't sound like a parent. However, you stick closely to what the child is saying. Child: "I hate Karen." Parent: "You hate your best friend." Child: "Yes, she talked about me behind my back." Parent: "Instead of being your friend, she acted like an enemy."

Active Listening. Active listening goes beyond reflective listening. Through active listening you listen for the feelings between the words that your child doesn't know how to verbalize. This means making guesses that help your child feel deeply understood and validated. Making guesses is not about being "right," but about getting into the child's world so well that the child feels understood. If you make a guess that is wrong, that gives you information that you need to try a different path.  Child: "I hate Karen." Parent: "You sound furious with your best friend." Child: "Yes, she talked about me behind my back." Parent: "Sounds like you feel betrayed." Child, in tears: "How could she do that?" Parent: "You trusted her and she broke that trust." Child sobs. This is the time to stop active listening and just hold her for awhile.

Validate feelings. Your child might say, "I hate you." Validate her feelings by saying, "You are really angry right now." You don't need to say anything else. Just let your child have her feelings. Listening often leads to a cessation of the misbehavior because a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. The child who feels encouraged (validated) no longer needs to misbehave.

Criticism and lectures are not effective motivators to help your children learn important skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Now that you know that-and what to do instead-it still can be difficult to break the habit of criticism and lectures. However, when you understand the long-range results, it is worth the effort.

From the Parents

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