Parenting Solutions: Helping Children to Be Good Listeners

It can sometimes be exasperating to get children to listen, but there are several positive ways for adults to get through to them.

Look at me when I’m talking to you!
Are you listening?
Don’t make me repeat myself!
Pay attention when I’m speaking to you!
Do you hear me?

If the above sound familiar, don’t be surprised. Most parents have resorted to some of these statements in attempts to get their children to listen. The majority of parents have had the exasperating experience of instructing their children only to find out that they have not listened and therefore have not complied with the instructions.

Although children seem to have a natural disinclination to listen, experts say there are positive methods for getting through to them. Here are several positive ways parents can help their children become good listeners.

Be a good listener. Be your child’s role model of someone who listens well. When a child is explaining something, give him or her your undivided attention. Show you have heard clearly by affirming what you understand and seeking clarification on what you don’t. “Sometimes we parents are poor listeners. Our kids want to tell us something and we are too busy with the television or the newspaper or are too preoccupied with our thoughts to give them a full hearing,” says Steve Saso in his book Ten Best Gifts For Your Teen, written with his wife, Patt.

Saso tells how he once failed to pay attention to his son’s description of a class trip to see a play. “I was not listening…[because] I had a million things on my mind,” Saso writes. At dinner, his mother asked Paul about the play. “Ask Dad. I told him all about it on the way home from school,” Paul replied.

“I was caught!” says Saso, who had to admit he really had not been listening at all.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. A mother tells her son it’s time to leave but then takes an additional 20 minutes to get ready. A father tells his daughter that he will pick her up from the roller rink promptly at 3 p.m. but doesn’t arrive until nearly 3:30. Such scenarios cause children to develop “selective hearing” in an attempt to discern what the parent really means. Think before you speak. Then say what you mean and mean what you say.

Get up close and personal. That’s the advice of Elizabeth Pantley, author of Kid Cooperation. “While it’s a whole lot easier to yell from two rooms away, it’s much less effective,” she says. “Children respond much, much better to a parent who is facing them eye-to-eye. In addition, when you are standing close-by you can determine if your child is paying attention to you, without having to gauge the meaning of a few distant grunts.

Modify the environment. Modify an environment that is not conducive for good listening and learning, assuring that your child has every opportunity to hear you. Turn off the television set, put the video game on pause, don’t let the child wear a CD headset and listen to music, and make sure that others in the room do not distract the child.

Stephen D. Boyd is a professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University. In “The Human Side of Listening” from the October 2001 Techniquesmagazine, Boyd describes a student who had returned to college after flunking out the first time. On his second try he got high grades due in part to where he sat in class—front and center, right in the face of the instructor. “Consequently, he heard everything clearly, had nothing in between him and the instructor to distract him, and he received more eye contact and personal attention than anyone else in the room.”

Use the word “please.” Treat your child with consummate respect. Like adults, children are more likely to respond affirmatively to a request cast in a positive tone. Don’t shout or bark out orders. Phrase your requests in a polite manner. Rather than a demand—Clean your room now—try saying, Please have your room cleaned before your friend comes over today. Instead of Unload the dishwasher immediately, try: Would you please unload the dishwasher in the next few minutes.

Be clear. Children listen better when the conversation is clear and focused. Says Elizabeth Pantley in Kid Cooperation: “Don’t hint’ at what you want your child to do—It would be nice if you…or…Don’t you think you should…? Don’t make an incomplete request: Soon you’ll have to get ready to go. Don’t be vague: You know better than that. Instead, be clear and specific. State your requests in a way that will not be misunderstood. Please put your shoes and coat on and get in the car or Please hang up your clothes and put your books on the shelf or Sit here and use a quiet inside voice.

Show respect toward children. While teaching children to respect parental authority, parents have an equal responsibility to show respect for their children. In his book Solid Answers, psychologist James Dobson shares this insight: “The self-concept of a child is extremely fragile, and it must be handled with great care. A youngster should live in complete safety at home, never belittled or embarrassed deliberately, never punished in front of friends, never ridiculed in a way that is hurtful. His strong feelings and requests, even if foolish, should be considered and responded to politely.”

Let there be consequences. Children should know that there is a price to be paid for not listening. Consider the example of a father whose 13-year-old son was on an ice hockey team. An hour before they were to leave for a game, he asked his son to make sure he had all his equipment ready to go in his sports bag. “O.K., dad,” the boy said. In the locker room at the rink, however, the youth discovered that some equipment wasn’t in the bag and he pleaded with his father to return home and retrieve it.

“However, I chose not to and used the occasion as a strong reminder to my son that he didn’t really listen and follow through on making sure all of his equipment was packed. As a result, he sat at the rink and merely watched his teammates play. We’ve had no similar problems since then,” the father says.

Exercise patience. Listening is a skill that must be cultivated and developed. For most individuals it doesn’t happen automatically or naturally or quickly.

Affirm children when they listen. Reinforce good listening skills by complimenting and thanking a child. A simple statement of appreciation like “Thanks for listening and helping out—we’re a great team” can become a powerful reinforcing tool.

Even though helping children become good listeners can be daunting at times, be encouraged by that fact that you are instilling a powerful life skill in them. Youth who learn how to listen well are more apt to become adults who have healthy, vibrant, and successful relationships with spouses, friends, family members, and colleagues.

Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).

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