Active Listening for Active Kids

Eliza Clark
February 23, 2016

Getting children to listen is one of the biggest challenges for parents. How many times have you heard one parent moan to another, "They just don't listen!"? And how many times have you heard yourself bark at your kids, "You need to listen!!" or the old classic, "Don't make me repeat myself!!"?  And yet repeat ourselves we do, over and over.

This standard parent-child struggle has taken on a different cast in our current "age of inattention." With grown-ups ever more distracted by the buzzing and blinking of our various devices, we need to focus more of our own attention on helping our kids learn to regulate theirs. This is important enough now during the early years (how much happier family life would be if our kids listened better!), but really becomes critical to success later on in school and life.

Fortunately, there are many simple things we can do to give our kids a good start as they learn to regulate their own awareness and attention.  Some of these ideas are absolutely basic, and yet they can't be emphasized enough.

Consistent limits and routines matter.  If implemented in a positive, gentle manner, children will internalize and learn to value them (most of the time!).

Keep television and screen-time to a minimum. And it's also important to diminish or eliminate background noise from adult radio or TV.

Teach kids to use their "indoor voices" in the house—a tired mantra to be sure, but also an important first step in self-regulation.

Plenty of outdoor exercise and plenty of sleep are crucial.

Make sure there is a quiet space to which a child can retreat to look at books or play or daydream.

Lots of time for self-directed play teaches kids how to focus better than anything else.

That's the groundwork. But it's also important to think about how we talk with our kids when we are saying something they really need to hear. We think of this as encouraging our kids to be "active listeners." Ideally, we want them to engage with what they are hearing, rather than tune it out. 

To that end...

It's not always easy, but do your best to speak in a calm, quiet manner versus raising your voice. There is nothing kids would rather tune out than the sound of parent ranting.

Make eye contact before speaking; ask your child to repeat what you've said, and then ask questions to make sure she got it: so tell me again what you need to do before we leave the house?

Prepare your child for what is coming next. The good old "ten minute warning" at the playground falls under this heading, as does explaining the plan for the day or weekend, etc. Looking ahead and pre-imagining events really helps children stay on track.

Encourage and listen attentively to your kids' questions, comments and suggestions, even though they may slow you down. When you show that you are listening to them, they are that much more likely to return the favor.

From the Parents

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