Why your kids don’t listen – and how to deal with it

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A mother of young children asked why she finds herself saying the same things over and over again, but the children don’t seem to be paying attention. “It would almost be better if they would openly defy me,” she said “Instead, everything goes in one ear and out the other. Why don’t they listen to me?”

As with so many of the issues we discuss with parents about those very complex little people – their children – the answers are many and varied. But from the top:

  • Maybe your children are so bombarded, all day every day, by sounds from the TV, radio, CD player, microwave, dishwasher, hair dryer, passing traffic, neighbor’s leaf blower, etc. etc. that they have become very accomplished at shutting a lot of it out – and that includes your voice. One thing you could do about that is to get rid of the unnecessary background noise by not permitting TV and radio to run constantly. That might help.
  • Or maybe you don’t always listen to them, either. What gets priority: them or the ringing cellphone?

But probably it’s not so simple. Do they seem to be listening at the time, but later when they have failed to finish their cereal or go get their shoes or whatever it is you have asked them to do, does it appear that in fact they have not heard a word?

That might indicate – and this is especially true of younger children – that they were confused, and didn’t really understand what was being asked of them. That might well be the case if you have given them a whole string of directives, such as “finish your cereal, and then go upstairs and brush your teeth, and while you’re up there get your shoes and bring them down, and then put on your raincoat, or we’re going to be late…” Sound familiar?

Maybe you asked them a “why” question. Children may well not know the answer to the question you ask and so don’t respond, appearing not to be listening. “Why did you leave that book at day care?” is an unanswerable question. So is, “Why didn’t you carry that bowl of cereal with both hands, the way I told you?”

Another possibility is that they are only faking the “in one ear and out the other” pose. Maybe they are actually defying you, trying to gain control, trying to get you upset. And they’re being pretty successful, aren’t they?

So take a look at the situations that most often end up in your getting upset because they “didn’t listen.” If they were only pretending not to be listening, then some feeling is behind it. Trying to figure out what the feeling is would help everyone.

Were they worried about what was going to happen at the place where you were in such a hurry to get them to on time? Have the days at day care not been going so swimmingly perhaps?

Were they angry at being rushed to do all those things you were asking and wanted to keep spooning in cereal at a leisurely pace?

What’s the feeling? You may not have time to discuss it right then, but later you can revisit it. Even if they can’t remember, it will be helpful for them to hear you say, “You must have been upset/worried/angry and next time you can tell me about it, so you won’t have to pretend you don’t hear me.” Then be prepared to ask and hear about that feeling next time.

Or maybe they’s learned that if they wait long enough, after you’ve told them to go get their shoes five or more times and they continue to sit there as if oblivious, you’ll go do it yourself. Children can be incredibly patient sometimes.

It’s too bad we can’t have tape recordings of our voices to play back so we can hear what we sound like to our children. Sometimes we adults talk on and on, yammering away, with lectures and advice – none of which is very helpful.

One of the Grandmothers remembers giving what she thought was a very informative little talk to her young son about whether or not he should engage in some possibly (albeit remotely so) harmful activity. He waited until she was through, and then asked “Does that mean yes or no?”

Would you listen to you?

So try saying it only once or twice, in simple terms and few words, with the TV off and the cellphone on mute. Give them ample preparation time for each step of the early morning routine, or whatever the rushed time of day might be. And if they still don’t seem to be listening, offer to listen to their reasons why not. But remember not to actually ask them why they weren’t listening.

We told you it was complicated.

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