Put your coat on. Pick up your blocks. Eat your lunch. Don’t touch your brother. It’s time to get dressed. Bath time is over, time to get out of the tub. Turn off the TV. Bring me your shoes. Stop bugging your sister. Do any of these sound like things you have said to your kids today? Think about how many times during your day you tell or ask your child to do something. Telling our kids what to do is a big part of what we do as parents. Unfortunately, most parents at some point have been left thinking or saying things like, “Why can’t he listen?” or “Why can’t she just do what I ask her to do?” If these types of thoughts sound familiar to you, keep reading to learn some easy-to-use strategies to increase your child’s compliance with your requests.
Let’s first consider why kids don’t listen. Imagine for just a moment that pretty much everything in your life is decided for you. Someone tells you what to do, when to do and how to do. Sound fun? This is the reality for our kids. And this goes against what kids, starting in the toddler years, need and desire. Having a sense of power and control is important to children of all ages. Kids who don’t have an opportunity to have a say in what they wear or eat or which cup they use or how they pick up their toys will show their power by not listening or other negative actions. I am by no means suggesting that you just give your child free rein on every decision. I am going to tell you how you can make a few simple, positive changes that allow your child to have power and control within the limits that you set.
Be nearby and be at your child’s level when you give directions or make a request. This allows you to make sure you have your child’s attention. Sometimes kids are so engaged in what they are doing when we give directions that they don’t “hear” us. Getting down to your child’s level, making eye contact and possibly even physically touching your child helps your child move their focus to you so they are ready to listen.
Stop saying don’t. Kids hear many don’ts throughout their day. Don’t touch your brother. Don’t run in the house. Don’t jump on the couch. Don’t play with your food. Don’t splash the water. And list goes on and on. The problem with don’t is that it requires kids to not only stop doing what you don’t want them to do, but also determine what to do instead. This is difficult for kids to do. The fix to this problem is pretty easy. Tell your child what to do. Use your walking feet. Let’s jump on the floor instead of the couch. You can give your brother a gentle hug. Food is for eating.
Find the yes. Instead of telling your child no or don’t, find ways to say yes to your child. For example, “Playing outside is so fun. Should we play outside after nap or after dinner?” or “That toy looks like a lot of fun. Do you want me to take a picture of it or write it on your wish list?” I know there will be times when you absolutely must tell your child “No.” The nice thing about finding ways to say yes to your child is that when your do have to say “No” your child will probably be less resistant to it.
Be curious. Give your child an opportunity to explore the consequences of not following your limit in a safe way. My oldest daughter didn’t like to wear shoes. She took them off every time we got in the car even though I told her to leave her shoes on over and over again. I had to put them back on when we got where we were going. This wasn’t a huge deal except it happened to be spring, so I was caught standing in the rain putting her shoes on more times than I cared to be! Using curiosity to help my daughter follow my limit, could have looked like this. “I wonder what will happen if you walk outside without your shoes. Let’s try it” My daughter quickly discovered she didn’t like wet socks and started leaving her shoes on.
Keep it short and simple. It can be very easy for parents to use too many words when giving directions or making requests. Be direct and simplify your language.
Set a clear limit. Kids need to know what the limits are. It helps them feel safe and know what to expect. The way we set those limits as parents can help them understand that they have control and power over what happens within the limits. For example, your child wants to go play outside but needs to pick up his toys first. Set the limit by saying, “First we will pick up the toys, then we will go outside.” Your child’s choice to pick up the toys determines how quickly they will get outside.
Saying thank you to your child is a powerful motivator to get your child to do what you want. Coats and backpacks on the floor. Shoes strewn down the hallway. Dirty clothes on your child’s floor. Do any of these examples sound familiar? What do you do when you see these things? If you are like most parents, you probably say things like, “Hang up your coat.” Or “How many times do I have to tell you to put your clothes in the hamper?” Instead of nagging after the fact, encourage your child to do what is expected by saying, “Thank you for hanging up your coat,” as your child enters the house. This reminds your child what is expected and lets them know you believe they can do what is expected of them.
Give your child choices, choices, choices. Instead of telling your child what to do or wear or eat or when and how to do something, offer them a choice. Children get a sense of power and control when they are given a chance to make choices. Now I am not suggesting you give them free rein to choose whatever they want. I am suggesting that you offer your child limited choices that fit within your boundaries. Do you want eggs or yogurt for breakfast? Do you want to wear your blue shirt or your green shirt? Do you want to put your pajamas on or brush your teeth first? I offered my kids choices all day every day when they were little. My kids had an opportunity to practice making choices and living with their choice. They also knew that if they didn’t make a choice, I would choose for them. Either way, whether they chose one of my options or I chose for them, the result was within the limits I set.
As frustrating as it can be when our kids don't listen, it is a common way for kids to try and gain power and control in their lives. Parents have a choice when this happens. We can either try to force the issue and enter into a power struggle with our children or we can try a different approach that gives our child a sense of power and control.