How to Get Children to Listen

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: My seven-year-old son never seems to listen to anything I say. My directions and warnings go right by him, and I seem to end up yelling at him all the time. How can I get him to listen to me?

Answer: This is a common complaint from parents. Sometimes we adults spend so much time giving orders and correcting behavior that kids simply tune us out. And the more we crank up the volume, the more kids ignore us. In short, we need to learn to be more selective about what we say, be sure we have a child's attention before we talk to them, and then make sure our words are not empty--that is, mean what we say and say what we mean. Here are a few tips that should help you make sure your son listens and takes you seriously:

- When you need to give him instructions or re-direct his behavior, move close to him and say his name or even touch him gently on the shoulder. Make sure you have eye contact with him before you tell him what he needs to do. This is much more effective than talking from across the room (or worse yet, shouting from another room) and it shows your child that what you are saying is important.

- Use a soft voice and as few words as possible. When we launch into a long lecture, children are almost certain to tune out. A brief, simple message is much more likely to be heard and understood. It's amazing how much attention a whispered directive can get, especially from a child who has become desensitized to a parent's yelling.

- When you give instructions or correct your child's behavior, tell him what you want him to do, rather than what he should not do. For example, instead of saying, "Quit making such a mess on the couch," tell him, "You need to eat your snack at the kitchen table."

- State in clear and specific terms what you expect and what the consequence will be when he has followed your directions. For example, "When you finish those ten arithmetic problems, we'll watch the video you wanted to see" or "When you have all your toys back in the toy box, you can have that snack you asked for." (Notice the use of "when" rather than "if." This communicates your confidence that your son will follow through.)

- If your son doesn't comply with your directions, follow through right away with the consequences you have stated. Be matter-of-fact, stating simply, "Since you didn't put your toys away, we'll save that special snack for another day." If you're tempted to lecture about how he never does what you ask him to do, swallow your words. Just let the consequences speak for themselves. Over time, he'll discover that it's in his best interest to listen carefully and do what you ask.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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