Teaching Children to Listen

By Michael J. Weiss, PhD. on February 15, 2011
We all think children should automatically know how to listen, but that’s like thinking they should know algebra too. We need to teach them before we can expect them to do it.

Cheryl is cleaning up the house before some friends come over with their kids for a group playdate. She’s in the kitchen, while her five-year-old son, Kevin, is in the adjacent playroom, glued to a TV show. She’d like him to pick up the toys lying around the playroom, so she calls to him to help her.

“Kevin, would you pick up the toys for mommy, please?” Silence.
“Kevin? Did you hear me? Can you put all your cars in their box?” Silence. “Kevin!”
Still no answer. Cheryl’s starting to get just a little bit angry.
 “Helllooo… Kevin, I’m talking to you!” No response from the playroom.
“Kevin, I’m going to count to three and then you’ll be in big trouble … one … two… three … Kevin!” Silence.
With each repetition, Cheryl gets more agitated – you can hear it in her voice. Here she is, getting the house ready for a fun playdate for him and he is ignoring his mother!

After a few more repetitions of her son’s name at increasingly higher pitches, Cheryl gives up and stomps into the playroom.
“Never mind Kevin, I’ll clean up myself – like I normally do.”
The situation isn’t new. If Kevin doesn’t want to do something, he simply ignores his parents.
“When it’s time to leave for school in the morning, I’ll call him 10 times with no reaction. It’s like he’s deaf,” says Cheryl’s husband, Sam. “If you tell him to do something, he will not listen to you…”
“Unless it’s something he wants, then his hearing is perfect,” adds Cheryl.
Worse yet, a bad feeling develops between Cheryl and Sam and lasts well beyond the episodes of Kevin not listening. They get so frustrated with their son’s non-responsive behaviour that they end up fighting about it.
“By the end of the night we’ll be at each other, because of the situation a few hours ago,” says Cheryl. “Kevin’s been in bed for hours, and we still have so much frustration that we’re arguing.”

While his parents are getting more and more frustrated, Kevin’s feeling pretty good: he gets to keep watching his TV show while avoiding tasks he doesn’t want to do and activities he doesn’t like.

The dynamics of this situation just stink! But, what do you do to change this? The answer actually lies in a comment that Sam made as we were talking. He said: “When you’re calling Kevin to get him to do something, you have to go wherever he is, make him stop whatever he is doing, take him by the hand make him do what you are asking him to do!” Right!

Sam was expressing his frustration in what he has to do to get his son to listen and do as he asks. But what he is really describing is how to teach his son to listen.

Children’s natural instincts are not to listen to adults. Rather, they are ‘wired’ to explore and pay attention to what they find interesting in the moment. Children must learn to listen. Children must learn to stop doing something interesting.
This is the misjudgment that all grown-ups make; we all think children should just do it – listen! But this is no different than thinking that children should just know algebra. Life lessons need to be learned and taught.
This takes us to the real heart of the matter – how do we teach our children to listen? This can be summed up in Sam’s description of Kevin: “You need to go over to where he is and make him do it.”

Let me be a little more specific about this and say that there are three words to remember as you teach your children listening and cooperation skills: timing, talking and proximity.

“Timing” is simple: It’s all about nipping it in the bud. So the minute you realize that your child is not listening, you need to take action. If you have repeated yourself for the third time, your child is not listening to you.

But what action to take? That is also straight forward. To begin with, stop repeating your requests. “Kevin clean up your toys, Kevin, clean up, Kevin do you hear me, Kevin, Kevin, Kevin!” Forgive my frankness, but what you have to do first is… SHUTTT… UPPPP!!!

This is the talking dimension. There is a time to talk and a time to be quiet and take action. If your child is not responding after one or two repetitions, stop talking.

The time to talk is while kids are helping and at various other times of day when you can tell them how much you appreciate all of their help. When they are not listening, stop talking and take action.

Finally, there is the proximity factor. Once you’ve repeated yourself for your child to do something and they are not doing it, go over to where they are. Stand too close. Tell them that they need to stop what they are doing and help. Join in with them in the helping actions, such as assisting them in cleaning up the toys. You can be really nice about it, but the bottom line is that they need to stop what they are doing and join in doing what you have asked.

Had Cheryl upped the ante of her response, just a little, at the outset of the toy cleanup incident, it’s likely there wouldn’t have been an incident at all.

Let’s rewrite the scene: imagine what would have happened had Cheryl nipped that situation in the bud by reacting immediately to her son’s ignoring behaviour. The moment she realized she was being ignored, Cheryl could have stopped talking, gone in the other room, turned off the TV, got close to Kevin, and calmly but firmly repeated her request, close up. If he is learning how to do this for the first time, she could have taken him by the hand, joined in and walked him through the task of cleaning up.

In the short run, of course, this approach seems counterintuitive: Cheryl would actually be doing the job she asked Kevin to do. But, by taking this approach, she’s also showing him both how to clean up, and how to listen. At the same time, Cheryl is also showing Kevin that she means what she says. A parent who consistently commits to this approach will gradually discover that they don’t have to do any of the work themselves. Your voice becomes credible.

Imagine all of that aggravation that Cheryl is avoiding as she keeps her cool with Kevin, and – as a bonus – has a nice evening with her husband, rather than ending up arguing, or even worse, not speaking!

How to teach listening skills in three easy steps
  1. Nip being ignored in the bud.
  2. Stay quiet when your child is not cooperating, but talk often to them about how helpful they are as they are assisting in the process.
  3. If your child is not listening, get really close up and require them to take action.   

Take a Hint
One word on “turning off the TV…” You will get a lot less drama if you follow these hints:
  • Put yourself in their position. They are involved in something.
  • Tell them that they have to stop at the next logical break, such as the end of the video game “level” or at the next TV commercial.
  • Know the games and shows well enough so that you know when to give them a “two-minute” warning that a stoppage is coming.
  • When first teaching how to stop a fun activity, don’t just tell them to stop, you turnit off yourself.
Published in March 2011.

Michael J. Weiss, PhD., is a clinical psychologist specializing in helping families and schools manage developmental differences in children. 

By Michael J. Weiss, PhD.| February 15, 2011

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