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Erica Reischer Ph.D.
Erica Reischer Ph.D.

How to Get Your Kids to Listen the First Time

Try these 7 steps to get your kids to listen without yelling or nagging.

Carla is having one of those mornings. She has a staff meeting at 8:30 a.m. and needs to drop off the kids at school on her way to the office. Her son, Jonah, is happily playing with his Legos while she makes breakfast.

"Jonah", she calls from the kitchen, "It's time to stop playing and come eat." No response from Jonah, even though she can see him sitting on the living room floor not far away. "Jonah, come have your breakfast, " she calls again. Jonah continues playing. "Jonah? Jonah!"

Now Carla is frustrated and her resolve to stay patient suddenly evaporates. She storms into the living room and stands over her son. "Jonah! What's wrong with you—I said come here right now!"

If this scene sounds familiar to you, you're in good company.

Feeling Ignored by Your Kids?

To teach your kids to listen the first time, you must help them cultivate the habit of paying attention to what you say. Part of creating this habit is paying attention to how you talk to them.

Why? Because if you tend to ask again and again (and again), and then either give up and do it yourself—or resort to yelling—you may be unintentionally teaching your kids that you can be ignored until you either give up (you didn’t really mean it) or you yell (now you mean it).

Yelling does get kids' attention, but it's problematic because it contributes to a dysfunctional pattern of communication. Research has also shown that yelling may have harmful effects on children comparable to physical punishment, such as hitting. Children whose parents are verbally aggressive also exhibit lower self-esteem, higher aggressiveness, and increased rates of depression.

What to Do Instead

Here's a step by step guide to getting kids to listen the first time.

1. First, be sure your kids really hear you when you ask them to do (or not to do) something. Shouting across the house or up the stairs does not count.

For young kids, kneel down in front of them and make eye contact while making your request. A friendly touch on the arm, or some other positive physical connection is also helpful.

For older kids, aim for a minimum of eye contact and an acknowledgement that they heard you.

2. Realize they may not be ignoring you on purpose. Young children (especially those under age 14) are easily distracted and often don't notice what is happening around them.

Research has shown that kids engaged in an activity, such as playing, reading, or gaming, often do not register other aspects of their surroundings. They lack what is called "peripheral awareness."

This limited peripheral awareness may keep kids from registering what is happening around them—including a parent who is standing close by and talking to them—even when it appears that they couldn't miss it.

So give your kids the benefit of the doubt when it seems that they are ignoring you. (See step one, above.)

3. Realize they may be ignoring you on purpose. Conversely, some kids will "test" their parents to see what will happen if they do ignore you.

This is important information for them, and a very normal part of development. Consider that you may have unintentionally taught them in the past that you can be ignored.

4. Once you've made sure they heard you (step one, above), ask them once and wait to see what happens.

If they follow through, great; you’re done. If not, ask one more time, and then add the following steps to your request:

5. Tell them why you are asking—that is, give them a reason to go with your request. This helps kids see your reasoning and shows them you are not being arbitrary. (Note: “Because I said so” is not a reason, and may lead to power struggles or secrecy.)

Help kids understand rules or requests that may seem arbitrary to them and, when relevant, show them the impact of their behavior on others. This step will not guarantee immediate compliance with your requests, but it will show your kids that your requests are reasonable and will also model the importance of using good reasons to motivate behavior.

For example: “Please go get your shoes on now. We have to leave in one minute or we’ll be late to pick up your friends. That would not be nice manners.”

6. Let natural consequences take their course, if possible. Natural consequences are those that follow without parents having to do anything, such as getting wet feet from wearing flip-flops instead of rain boots, or not having their clothes laundered because they left them on the bedroom floor (again).

Natural consequences are often the best teachers, except when they may create a health or safety risk. That said, many times the situation we find ourselves in with our kids has no natural consequence and so requires us to step in and actively do something, such as when our child is kicking the seat on an airplane, or speaking disrespectfully to us.

When natural consequences aren't an option, go to step 7.

7. Give them fair warning of consequences—that is, what will happen if they don't respond to your request.

For example: “We’re leaving the park in 5 minutes. If you don’t come with me when I tell you it’s time to go, then we won’t come back to the park tomorrow after school because your behavior is making it difficult to leave on time.”

Fair warning is critical because if children know in advance what the consequences will be for breaking a rule or ignoring a request, then they are making a choice about their behavior: whether they are going to follow the rule, or break the rule and bear the consequences. There are no surprises.

After you’ve repeated your request, and given your reasoning and fair warning of consequences, give kids a chance to respond. If they don’t do what you’ve asked, and it was a reasonable request, the next step is to follow through on the consequences you previewed for them.

This last step, if necessary, is essential, since it will show your kids that you mean what you say. Consistency is key.

Leave a comment below and share with other readers how this works in your family.

© 2014, Erica Reischer, Ph.D. is the author of What Great Parents Do: The Small Book of BIG Parenting Ideas

About the Author
Erica Reischer Ph.D.

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is a psychologist, parent coach, and author. She teaches at University of California Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions.

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