Updated: May 12, 2021
There are countless pleas in every parenting group saying, "Help! My kids won't listen to me!" or "How do I get my kids to listen better?" I'm here to tell you there is a way. It is possible to have a relationship with your children where they listen to you.
But first I have to come clean. I have tricked you into clicking on this post. The reason I mislead you is that no one types "How to build more love, trust, and cooperation into the relationship with my children so they will hear me out." Or "How to build an environment that I don't have to say no to my kids so often." Or "How to take charge and provide closer supervision when my children need more support." into their Google search okay. Haha, so there I said it. I'm here to help you find more cooperation in your home but it has nothing to do with children "listening".
Cultivate more love, trust, cooperation, and prioritize the relationship with your child above all else.
When you love, trust, and respect someone you are more likely to cooperate with them. Conversely, when you feel loved, trusted, and respected you are more likely to cooperate with them. I will bend over backward for bosses or coworkers who make me feel this way. It's in our nature as human beings. I have seen firsthand that when I pave the way with love, trust, and respect my 3-year-old would give me the moon if he could. Some ways I cultivate these things include compliments, cuddles, special 1:1 time, treats, making favorite meals, doing things he loves, watching shows he wants to watch. When I go first with a generous heart he almost always follows.
One thing that changed our dynamic in the most profound way was when I learned to prioritize the relationship with my child above all else. The connection to him and our relationship takes priority. Period. This means when he is having a hard time, or refusing to do something, or I'm feeling disrespected, the relationship and connection with him trump all fears or any agenda.
My fears and agendas sound like this: "You are raising a spoiled brat.", "He will never learn if you don't make him.", "What's going to happen when he goes into the real world?" "He has to _____ or else it will create more work for me." "We have to _____ or we are going to be late."
These fears and agendas do not get to run the ship anymore. Our relationship, connection, and what is happening at this moment get to decide how things are run.
This dynamic has been transformative for us. It transformed us because my son feels loved, respected, and trusted. He is exponentially more willing to cooperate. Also, this frees him from being required to push back when my fears and agenda rear their ugly heads. Children are so perceptive and they see right through us. You better believe they are calling us on our bull. Now he doesn't have to fight so hard to say, "Mom you're being ridiculous! You're not in your right mind to make decisions for me. These are your fears and your agenda, get outta here with that!"
The reason working from the perspective of our fears and agenda won't work is because it's all about us and doesn't include the child. If that feels permissive or indulgent to you, consider why you don't see the child as an equal partner in your life and relationship together. Also, fears and agendas almost never include the current moment. It's usually about our past or future. Which means it has no place running things right now. So thank God for children who know this, and remind us to come back to them and ourselves right here, right now.
Create a "yes space" and have "yes days".
As much as possible try to create their very own yes space for your child to play. Anything goes in this space because you have taken away unsafe or hazardous things. I create yes spaces using gates, locks, and furniture mounts to keep my little monkey climbers as safe as possible. Also, it's a good idea for each sibling to have their own space. Everyone needs a place to go be alone sometimes, this does wonders for the brain and nervous system.
I had a love-hate relationship with the movie "Yes Day" with Jennifer Garner. I loved it because it was cute and fun and Jennifer Garner is the best friend I always wanted. I hated it because it portrayed yes days in an absurd way.
Here is how we do yes days. Every month on the day of your birth is your very own special day. For example, my 3-year-old was born on the 30th so when the 30th rolls around each month it's his day. Last month he picked his own very small very colorful outfit to wear to school, took the $3.00 train to daddy's work, had chocolate ice cream, took as long as he wanted to look at things while we walked, got carried whenever he asked, and took a bath with his lovey.
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you this fills his cup for a week. After his special day, his mood is so pleasant and he is so cooperative and loving. Seriously it doesn't take much. Children deserve days to indulge sometimes too. If I can binge-watch Netflix while eating a Costco size back of Doritos every weekend he can have a train ride and chocolate ice cream each month. Also, I hope this is teaching him that experiencing pleasure and indulgence is not a bad thing. Especially when you do it intentionally and savor the experience.
By the way, my husband and I have yes days too. Each month on the 21st is mine and I love going out with friends, taking baths, going out to eat by myself, catching up on work, or checking into a hotel alone on my yes days.
So to recap, the yes space works because there is nothing to have to "listen" to. You won't need to tell them what to do or say no because they can do whatever they want (within reason) in their yes space. The yes day works because it fills their cup and makes them feel seen, special, and cared for. They don't have so much neediness because you have indulged them for a day. Also, it makes you realize you can say yes to way more things on average days too.
One last thing, if you struggle with being too permissive and indulgent on a regular basis I would use your yes days to help you hold firm boundaries on regular days. "Sure you can have that! On your yes day."
Create routines, and hold firm boundaries.
Let's face it if you have kids you know that firm boundaries and consistent routines do not always work. We started giving my son a multivitamin around 2.5 years old. He went through a six-month period of screaming and demanding TWO vitamins every time we gave him one. It was a boundary we never once wavered from, alas we still were met with pushback. To this day, one year later, he will still randomly plea, "Can I have two please mommy?" Why is that? Why don't our firm boundaries always work?
Well, this is because toddlers are hardwired to push back, question the limit, wonder if they can get away with it in a different way. It is their job to exhaust all possibilities and all questions until they have answered each question from each angle. Basically, it's the parent's job to be like the "Grinch" (Don't ask me his real name) and the toddler's job to be like Sam-I-Am in Dr. Suess's "Green Eggs and Ham". Forget the fact that eventually, the Grinch gave in haha. Be like the Grinch who does not try the eggs, ever.
Trust that your routines and firm boundaries are working. It's just that hard to be a parent sometimes.
Get on their level and speak as few words as possible in the most direct way you can.
When you need your child to do something, get on their level, look directly into their eyes, say their name, connect, then confidently give the direction. I will get on my knees, look right into my son's eyes and say, "M, I see you just finished playing with that car. Looks like you had fun driving! It's time to get going now, do you want to clean up your cars or put your shoes on first?" This is a LOT to say to a 3-year-old. He is very verbal and talkative so I speak more to him than I would most preschoolers. For my 1.5-year-old I will get on the floor with him then say (verbally and with sign language), "K, you played cars, Yay! We are all done. Let's clean up."
There is no substitute for adult supervision and intervention.
Ouch right. This was a hard one for me because I was taught in a very old-school way. There are many children who do in fact "listen" and "obey", I was one of them. Additionally, I had classrooms full of students who would behave for me. But here's the catch, in order to get this outcome we have to use shame, manipulation (a.k.a. rewards), punishment, or physical abuse. I do not want to use shame, manipulation, punishment, or physical abuse to get my kids to "listen". I had to come to terms with the only thing I can do is actively prevent and supervise.
If I have to repeat myself more than twice, I intervene. I take the toy away, I move my child, I sit close to prevent what needs preventing. I do not rely on a 3-year-old to "make good choices", "listen", or be in control of his impulses. Period. That's not his job.
So the next time you find yourself nagging, yelling, pleading with your children to get them to listen, step back and pause for a moment then ask yourself these questions:
I promise your child won't become a better "listener" but they will be in a more loving, helpful, cooperative mood. Also, they will benefit for the rest of their lives from the loving, connected relationship you are forming right now.