The Hard Truth about Listening: Getting Kids (and Adults) to Listen in Three Not-So-Simple Steps

One thing I have noticed in past week is this: in the feedback to TPP so far, there has been one resounding theme, “I am really trying not to yell at my kiddos and be more peaceful…but what about the times when they just won’t LISTEN?”

First off, let me tell you I am with you. Oh man, am I with you. My kids should each win some kind of award for Best Dramatic Representation of a Hearing Impaired Individual. Whether it is from across the room, upstairs, or at point blank range, they can be experts at tuning out what they don’t want to hear.

Since I set out on this little journey, the Listening Dilemma has been a primary question of mine, too. And as I’ve read up on the subject and observed mothers that are far more experienced than I am, I’ve noticed one hard truth. As far as listening goes, there is no easy fix.

Listening is a skill that takes a lifetime to master. Actually, scratch that. Some people never master it. Yet we often expect our little ones to listen the first time, every time, and diligently follow through with each and every request we throw at them. Well, no matter what technique you try, that’s just not realistic. But, I have found there are some very good tools out there to help us as we teach our kiddos how to improve.

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As I was pondering the listening phenomenon this week, something very interesting happened to me. Very interesting, indeed. It happened just after my daughters came home from school yesterday. They had eaten their afternoon snack, and they had bounded upstairs to get their swimsuits on. We had just about 15 minutes until it was time to leave for swim lessons. I saw this as an opportunity to grab a quick bite to eat. As it turns out, spending a couple of hours writing every day can put a serious damper on your lunchtime routine. More on that later. So I was starving, and I made myself a quick turkey sandwich. I made it as quickly as I could, and finally sat down to take a bite.

And that is precisely when it happened.

“MOOO-M”

(Okay, this bothers me. When written, this words looks like moom, like it rhymes with room. What I mean is MOOO-M. You know, the MOM-I-NEED-YOU-TO-COME-DO-SOMETHING-FOR-ME call. How exactly does one type out the tone of that voice…that calling from upstairs voice. The long, drawn out AHHHHH sound in Mom. The one that can sometimes be the most grating sound you’ve ever heard. The one that gets louder with each repetition, until it’s a frantic yelling… MOM!! MOM!!! The one you’ve heard ever since your toddler started calling for you to come wipe their bum after going poop on the potty. The one that probably continues until they are teenagers looking for some particular item of clothing in a pile of laundry. You know the call. The MOM call. You know how your gut feels when you hear it. “UGH! They need me AGAIN!” That one.)

She called again, “MOOOO-M” (you know what I mean).

And do you know what I did?

I pretended like I didn’t hear her.

I didn’t answer her. I tuned her out. And do you know why? Because I was hungry, that’s why.  All I wanted in life at that moment was to eat my sandwich in peace. I just wanted her to get distracted by something else, forget that she needed me, and move on. I very willfully did not listen.

And then, my eyes widened a little and my jaw dropped open.

I get so frustrated with my kids for not listening. But I do it, too!

Don’t get me wrong, this was not a completely new insight. I’m not that dense. But what struck me is the feeling I had inside. The gut feeling. I was irritated, because she would not let me be. I took a quick second to let that feeling sink in, and then I imagined something. Close your eyes (ok, don’t close your eyes because you are reading…) and think…

What would have happened if the situation looked like this?

– What if, when she called from upstairs, she said, “Mom, I need some help up here. Will you come help me fix it when you get a chance?” (Maybe realizing I might be busy, and being mindful of my needs, too? What if she just stopped sounding so demanding?)

– What if – instead of calling from upstairs – she came downstairs and looked me in the eye, and asked me in a really nice voice what she needed help with? (Maybe seeking me out, making eye contact?)

– What if, while looking me in the eye, she said “Hey mom, I see you are eating a sandwich right now. But when you are finished with that, I need your help with my bracelet.” (Maybe being aware of what was going on with me, making eye contact, and then trying a specific request?)

You’ve been there before! You’ve heard your kids get it right and ask you kindly for something. How does your gut feel then? Completely different, I tell you! 100% different. Like, Maybe-I-Won’t-Ignore-You-While-I-Eat-My-Sandwich different.

So, when our kids are on the receiving end of us hollering at them from downstairs, (“Ella….Ella?… ELLA MARIE!!” You know I’ve done it. And so have you…) what makes them any different from us adults? They feel irritated when you are calling them… again. When they have conflicting needs, they will tune you out. And when you keep calling them over, and over, and over…voice getting louder, and louder…the less likely they are going to be in the right frame of mind to help out. It’s just a fact of life. Kids, adults, we all do it. I’m often amused by the fact that adults often expect more of their children than they are willing to do (myself included). Any Brian Regan fans out there? Remember the one about the kid going crazy because his balloon was flying away? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google it, it’s great). I think of that little bit a lot. Sometimes we adults need to take a second and put ourselves squarely in the shoes of our kids.

What if, instead of hollering to our kids from across the house until they answer, we try something different? What if we tried the following (look out…it’s another list!):

Be Mindful

Kids are not automatons. They have needs, just like us adults do. Sometimes the game they are playing is really super important to them and they just want to finish it before they fold their laundry. That’s okay once in a while. If you make an attempt to be mindful of their needs and treat them with respect, they tend to learn to mirror that mindfulness right back.

Seek Them Out, Get on Their Level, and Make Eye Contact

This one’s a no-brainer. Look them in the eye, for heaven’s sake. Take a knee and let them see you face to face. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to gently put my hand on my kids’ chins and help them look at me if they are distracted. Once I have their full attention, and only then, do I say what I’m going to say.

Speak Kindly, Be Specific, and Keep it Short

Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath first if we are feeling frustrated, but man oh man, a kind voice can go a long way. Think of the last time someone asked you to do something in a rude tone. How much did you want to do it? Probably not at all! And when you do ask your kids to do something, know exactly what it is you want them to do. No vague requests! Vague requests are guaranteed to get vague replies. Be reasonable, be specific. And keep it short. Kids have short attention spans. Asking them to hang on every word of a long lecture is pretty close to asking them to do a backflip. It ain’t gonna happen.

Additional Tips

Aside from this list, I have found there are several tools that work in our home for getting the kids’ attention. Most of these I learned from watching my kids’ teachers in their classrooms, teaching lessons to classes of children in church, or teaching various dance classes and musical theatre camps over the years. For example, you know those rhythmic clapping things they do at school to get the kids’ attention? They work brilliantly at home, too. That one is helpful when you need their attention quick, when you are dealing with a crowd of boisterous kids, and when you are on the verge of really wanting to raise your voice. Take your feelings out on your hands instead, and bust out a few good claps. Gets their attention every time. Once you have made a request of your kids, try having them repeat it back to you before they scamper off. Active listening is a skill. It takes practice, like anything else. One other thing that works for us is a little trick I learned while teaching a Primary class in church several years back. In the softest voice you can muster, whisper, “If you can hear me, touch your nose. If you can hear me, touch your ears. If you can hear me, touch your knees.” Obviously this works better for really young kids, but hey, they need to learn, too. It’s a fun little game that helps direct their listening while keeping everyone’s voice low.

Because really, let’s be honest. No one likes to be yelled for from across the house.

So, what are some tools you have used to improve listening in your home? What has been effective for your family? There are so many great tools out there. Let us know what works for you so we can all learn together!

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Hard Truth about Listening: Getting Kids (and Adults) to Listen in Three Not-So-Simple Steps”

  1. Loving this blog! SO glad you’re leading us on this journey!

    My 5 year old is KING of ignoring. Recently, we’ve started a token system. They can earn, lose, and spend tokens based on behavior. I’m having success doing all of the things you talked about PLUS often adding a “threat”. At his level, while touching his arm, in a calm voice, I make my specific request and then I say, “Report back to me when it’s done or you’ll lose a token.” IT’S SO MUCH WORK to do all of that just to get him to pick his dirty socks up off the floor. I could just do it myself in 2 seconds flat. But then I’ll be doing it every day for the rest of my bloody life, which I cant handle. So I’ll spend the time now, and hopefully he learns and gets into a routine, and we can move on. (He already knows that he’ll earn a token if he puts them away right as he’s taking them off. That just hasn’t caught on yet.)

  2. The article today touched me deeply- Why? Because I think (like most people) I love the feeling of being cared enough about, to have someone listen to me -REALLY listen to me.
    Why is it we assume that children don’t feel this way or worse yet that they don'[t have the ability to understand how wonderful this feeling is?

  3. I don’t know why, but this post is making me so emotional! Thank you so much for the reminder to look at things from our kids’ perspective. I always expect my kids to do whatever task I tell them to RIGHT NOW, but I often tell them, “just a minute. I’m right in the middle of something.” when they ask me for something. Even if what they’re doing doesn’t seem important to ME, it’s important to THEM and I need to respect that. Thanks for the reminder to change my perspective (and not yell through the house).

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