“Could you please clean out the bunny cage before you go outside to play?” I gently asked my son. “No, I can’t right now. Bye, Mom!” he replied, grabbing his shoes. “Whoa! Hold up. ‘No’ isn’t really an option here,” I said, frustrated. “Then why did you ask me?” he said, just before darting out the door. Grrrr! Why did I give him the option? I really wanted him to say yes and do it immediately out of the goodness of his heart—and because I assumed he knew I meant “do it now.”
Didn’t he know I was just saying it nicely? The incident, I thought, was one of many frustrating moments of my kids not listening. But I had been so busy being mad at my kids that I hadn’t stopped to think that I could be part of the problem. How can we, as parents, affect our children’s abilities to listen? Here are 3 ways.
1. Deliver your message with intentionality.
If you want your child to do something that isn’t actually optional, don’t ask if they’ll do it. Tell them they have to. Indulge me for a moment as I revert back to my teaching days. There are four types of sentences: Declarative (The bunny cage needs to be cleaned.), interrogative (Could you please clean out the bunny cage?), imperative (Clean out the bunny cage before you go out to play.), and exclamatory (No one has cleaned out the bunny cage in days!). Which would be most appropriate for communicating clearly and effectively to a child? Not sure? Here are the responses a kid might have for each:
The bunny cage needs to be cleaned. “Yep! That’s pretty gross. Bye, Mom!”
Could you please clean out the bunny cage? “No, I can’t right now. Bye, Mom!”
Clean out the bunny cage before you go out to play. “OK.”
No one has cleaned out the bunny cage in days! “Yeah. It’s probably Emma’s turn. Bye, Mom!”
Now we can see that only option C gets the kind of answer we are hoping for. Why? Because it’s imperative; it’s a command. It clearly calls a child to action because it starts with an action word.
2. Pay attention to the tone of your voice.
Just because you are giving a command doesn’t mean you have to sound like a drill sergeant. Shouting or saying it forcefully carries the added message that you are angry. When children hear that, the actual words are often lost. All they hear is “Mom is mad at me.” Over time, if they hear this tone frequently enough, they will start to tune it out. So what happens? We ramp it up and get louder. Now they have to listen, right? Not really. In turn, we get even more frustrated. Many parents say, “They don’t listen unless I yell.” And these parents don’t enjoy yelling; they just don’t know what else to do. We often think in extremes. It’s easy to go from sing-songy-sweet Snow White to angry-demanding evil queen pretty quickly. Is there a happy medium?
Yes. It’s called the “confident command” tone. For some, this tone comes naturally. The rest of us have to think consciously about how we sound or even practice the tone out loud. In an effort to be nice, I made the message I sent to my children confusing. The confident command delivers a clear message: “I mean what I say. I am telling you to do this. I’m not angry. I’m calm but firm.” Remember, even Snow White got firm with the dwarves when they didn’t wash their hands for dinner.
3. Deliver consistent consequences when your children do not obey.
Children of any age will test the boundaries. When they do not obey, what do you do? Do you have clear consequences? Do you deliver the consequences consistently or do you let things slide a lot? I often fall into the trap of making excuses for my children’s disobedience. While being compassionate is good, letting a child get away with something only blurs the boundary lines for next time. And “next time” could be in the classroom with a teacher giving a command your child doesn’t heed. If your kids are not listening to you, they likely are not listening to their teachers, either.
If your kids are not listening to you, they likely are not listening to their teachers, either.
If you’re not used to giving consequences, sit down with your children and tell them what to expect. Make sure the consequences fit the offense, and depending on your children’s ages, ask for their input. Will you allow “three strikes and you’re out,” one warning, or no warnings at all? Whatever you choose to do, be consistent. If you are like me, this will take some practice and time. But know that it’ll be worth it—not only alleviating some of your own frustration but training your children to obey authority in general. They will start to hear a command rather than think everything in life is optional.
Which of these three is the most challenging for you?