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All Ears: How to Get Kids to Listen

Sometimes young children 'tune out' in order to avoid information overload; here's how you can help.



Ever feel like your children can only hear you when you’re having a private conversation that doesn’t involve them? I can ask my son to pick up his toys 10 times, and he doesn’t listen. However, the second I get off the phone, he’s asking me a million questions about the conversation I just had with someone else. Does he simply turn his hearing off when he wants? Some experts say yes, in a way.

“Young kids commonly grow tired of paying attention all day and decide they need to tune out,” says Doreen Miller, a parent educator at the Institute for Parenting at Adelphi University, in New York. So how can we get our kids to actually listen? Miller says we can tailor the way we deliver the message. Try these tips to break your child’s sound-free barrier.

Stop the Information Overload

A child’s brain can only process so much. Hit them with too many details – “Turn off the TV, then go upstairs, get changed, brush your teeth and comb your hair” – and they won’t be able to recall anything past step one or two. Be too vague – “Get ready for bed” – and they won’t take your request seriously. Instead, Miller suggests splitting your request into two parts. Start with something like, “When this show is over, it’s time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed.” Then once the TV is off, continue with, “Okay, honey, pj’s and toothbrushing are next.” Then you can even throw in a choice like, “Do you want to skip or hop into the bathroom?” to make the task more fun.

Be Direct

When you dwell on a topic for too long, your child will tune out. For instance, if you say, “Honey, we’re meeting Julius in the park and you’ll want to climb at the playground. So you have to change out of your sandals before we leave home,” it’s unlikely that he’ll change into appropriate shoes. Instead, be concise and make the request up front: “Honey, put on your sneakers now because we’re going to the playground.”

Work on Delivery

Your child will listen better if you engage more than just her sense of hearing. A visual approach (looking her in the eye) combined with a tactile one (placing your hands on her shoulders) can help her focus better on what you’re saying.

Don’t Sound Like a Broken Record

If you feel like you’re saying the same things over and over, stop. Kids can become conditioned to wait to respond until you’ve said something for the fifth time. “Your words become nothing but background noise,” says Miller. Your child will be more inclined to do what’s asked of him if he understands that his actions have clear, enforceable consequences. Give him specific instructions no more than twice, and be sure to follow through with appropriate disciplinary actions if he doesn’t comply. On the flip side, acknowledge when he does follows directions the first time. Saying something like “Thanks for being a good listener” will reinforce his desire to pay attention.

Give Your Full Attention

You may think that you’re able to listen to your child while watching the news or texting your BFF. But what your child sees is a parent who is only half listening. And if you’re not paying attention, why should she? Of course, not everything your child has to say is a showstopper. Still, try to give your full attention, make eye contact, acknowledge what she’s saying and ask questions. After all, children learn their listening skills from us. 

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