by Drew Tupper
It would be too simple to say that in order for my child to listen to me, I need to listen to him. It’s not that it’s not true, it’s just too simple. But for those of you that are in a hurry, that’s it. Treat your child with respect and dignity and they will eventually do the same for you. We reap what we sow.
Parenting is not as clear-cut as it used to be. In the past, it was more straight forward. For the most part, parents in command and kids listened or else. If children didn’t mind their parents, they could be punished, often hit. Children knew their place.
Things have changed. Corporal punishment is not as common. Many parents are opting for kinder gentler parenting practices. Perhaps it’s because parents have realized that children can be well mannered, kind, and considerate without ever having to raise a hand to them. Maybe the irony of hitting your kid, in order to teach them not to hit, finally sank in. Perhaps it’s because the science is in on the topic. Psychologists, for a long time, have advocated for abandoning corporal punishment. There is overwhelming evidence that hitting your child does harm not good.
So why am I’m talking about hitting kids? Because this is one way to get your kids to listen: be intimidating, be scary… dominate! This will work. Am I advocating for it? No. But you’ll have your child’s attention if you are a tyrant willing to inflict some serious pain on to your kids.
If you are opting for a gentler way, you need to know that there are different rules to the game.
1. You will no longer have fingertip control over your child’s every move and every thought. You have chosen a different way. You have given up the dog whistle. You can’t parent in a new gentler way wishing for the unchecked power of the good old days.
2. You can’t just replace physical punishment with psychological punishment. Shaming, comparing, yelling, isolating, and employing unrelated threats (and rewards) are just as damaging, perhaps more. Simply abstaining from corporal punishment does not make a peaceful parent and will not in itself lead to well adjusted, helpful children that listen well.
3. The new way to get your child to listen to you, the new way to influence your child’s behaviour, your new “source of power” is your relationship with your child. Trust is the new spanking.
Let’s focus on what we can do. We can build a strong relationship with our child based on love, trust, and respect. We can accept our kids for who they are and attempt to meet their needs. A child who feels comfortable with who they are and who gets their needs met is much easier to parent and will be more apt to listen. It’s when a child feels threatened, unaccepted, deficient and not met, that he will exhibit more “difficult” behaviour.
So how do you build a strong relationship with your child? I’ve learned this the hard way. I can say with full confidence that honouring your child’s feelings from the get go is the basis for a strong relationship. This starts from when they come into the world. For example, leaving your child to cry alone in a room is not honouring their feelings. I know this one is a touchy subject, but I believe that babies can feel just as good as anyone. Although we might not have clear memories of infancy, we all carry with us the experiences of our lives, somewhere inside of us. These experiences, from birth, form who we are. The bonds that we have with our kids start from birth, probably earlier.
Moving on. Toddlers, are infamous for being “difficult” and not listening, so let’s talk about them. I’m not going to pretend that I have some magic potion or spell to cast on toddlers. They can be unpredictable, emotionally unregulated, stubborn, and looking to assert themselves. All of this is fine if you recognize it as developmentally appropriate and you don’t take it personally. They are not out to get you. They don’t have the brain power to manipulate.
Aside from it being absolutely true, that kids are good and want to be good, it never did me any good to assume the opposite. Give your kids the benefit of the doubt, assume the best. It’s a tough balancing act to honour their feelings but not take things to heart too much. After all, my little girl has told me that she hates me and won’t ever talk with me or play with me for the rest of my life…until I die. But this is the same girl who was upset that there were spaces between her toes. So, I take things with a grain of salt, and as a result I am able to offer empathy and fair boundaries in a calm and loving way.
So, back to listening. How are we shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to getting our kids to listen? We do the following:
- Micromanage (the fix: ease up on the control, stop the nattering, speak less)
- Yelling from across the room (the fix: get close, make eye contact)
- Repeating the same request over and over again (the fix: get his/her attention, see above)
- Snarky tone of voice (the fix: smile, speak nicely, be cooperative)
- Drone on and on (the fix: be concise)
- Demand that our requests be completed at once (the fix: this is a bit of a power trip. We don’t talk like this to other people. Give your child some choice and control.)
It seems like a no brainer, but one of the most important ways we can mess up is by not listening to our children when they want attention or when they want to speak. When you get down to their level, face to face, and speak with them nicely it models listening big time. When we let them know that we hear them and understand them, children will reward us with a level of trust that will strengthen our relationships immensely. It is that very strength that you will be able to call upon when you need your child to listen to you. Instead of fearing you or some consequence that you might dole out, your child will trust you, because you are trust-able. And this is the way it works, during the early years, and beyond. Hear your kids, truly hear them, and they will hear you.
Let’s take a look at an example of how to build trust and foster good listening:
*BTW-this took me about 5 years to learn…and I still had to consciously breath throughout the interaction.
Situation Permanent Marker: My daughter takes a permanent marker and draws on the newly refinished wood in the front hall. Instead of thinking she is out to get me and wants to mess with my head, I understand that she is 2 and a half and simply likes drawing. I get down to her level. I tell her that I notice that she wants to draw. I mention calmly that we don’t draw on the wood, but I could set her up with some paper and crayons at the table. She immediately gives me the marker and follows me to the kitchen table. She happily draws with crayons and has not drawn on the wood since. Lucky? Maybe. Maybe not.
When treated with respect, a child is much more likely to treat you with respect. I know it might sound too simple. But true respect is earned, not granted.