I’ve got news for you: your child hears you just fine. Listening is not the problem.
“Not listening” has become a catchall diagnosis of parent-child discontent in the same way that most couples enter marital therapy with a “communication problem.” Unless you both literally don’t speak the same language, that is not the problem.
What is so maddening about your child “not listening” is that you feel ignored. “I won’t be ignored!” (Fatal Attraction reference my Dad jokingly hijacked). It’s a big trigger for full time parents because being ignored all day means that you are exhausting an output of precious energy and attention. In the face of being ignored, we nonsensically ramp up the ineffective output of effort (read the Turn Down the Volume on Discipline chapter of the Sage Parenting book for more on this topic). The message you receive is that you are invisible. It feels maddening!
Now imagine your child turns to you and says, “I hear you Mommy.” Boom – all of a sudden you exist, within a cooperative relationship with another human being! This is acknowledgment and it goes a long way in creating respectful communication among the whole family.
The opposite of ignoring is not doing but acknowledging. Sometimes you will make a request he does not want or is unable to comply with. If he believes you expect compliance, ignoring would be the kindest approach. If the only two options he sees are doing what you have commanded or saying, “Fuck you,” ignoring is his best attempt at kindly meeting both your needs. So there’s the context for the problem. Now for a solution…
“How do I acknowledge you?”
One good thing about ignoring is that it’s not a top down problem. Kids hate being ignored just as much as adults do. So it’s a family problem for which the solution goes in all directions. It’s not something you enforce on your children but a shift in communication that the whole family adopts with each other.
“If you ask me for a piece of candy, do I always promptly pass one to you? No. But do I ignore you? No. What do I do? I acknowledge your request, and then we try to work out a solution to move forward.
For us all to have better days, we need to work on acknowledging. So how do you know if someone is acknowledging you? What things do you SEE (eye contact, head nod, etc.)? What things do you HEAR (okay, I’ll do that next, yes, one minute please, etc.)?
So if say, ‘Please come over here,’ how could you acknowledge me?”
“Superheroes acknowledge to save the day.”
Remember, children process everything through the world of play (play is the language of children) so you want to play it out. Move to the opposite side of the room and say, “Come here please.” Your child will likely get up and come to you and say, “Okay.” You can respond, “Thank you.” Since it’s just pretend, the first round is easily compliance. But since we are not interested in raising mindless, obeying automatons, we try again.
“Now what could you do if you really did not want to get up and come at that moment? Maybe you were really, really into the drawing you were working on. Let’s try it again.”
At some point in the role-playing, your child should play the role of the person reaching out (like the parent) while you are doing a task and you have to first ignore, and then acknowledge.
Think of it as cos play. You can both be superheroes, working as a crime-fighting team! One says, “Pass me the blaster!” The other ignores him. The villain gets away. Whereas, “I left it in the bat mobile!” allows you to then problem solve a way to move forward to defeat the villain. “You distract her while I retrieve it.”
“It’s a new day with the new way.”
Prevention is always the first step in setting ourselves up for success. We can sometimes fall into the cycle of ignoring when we spend too much time dictating commands throughout the day. “Put on your shoes! Clean up the cars! Don’t spill that drink!” A litany of requests transforms our voices into wallpaper as the series of endless orders habituate the sound of our voices to annoying background noise. If you don’t want to become static and you don’t want your child to tune you out, be mindful of the song of verbal communication you are playing. “I won’t yell. You won’t ignore.”
Once you have gone over the game plan and had your trial run, it’s time to commit to the change.
- Make your statement, question, or request ONCE.
- If ignored, go to him and get down to his level, making eye contact and a physical connection (like a hand gently on his arm), and repeat it a second time.
- If he again fails to acknowledge you, remove him from the situation, “Since you are unable to acknowledge me while you are playing with blocks, we are going to sit over here together away from the blocks and try again.”
You can alter the specifics but you don’t ever want to be repeating yourself over and over again with no response. One time. Then you reinforce the connection the second time. Then you change the environment the third time. If once you change settings he continues to ignore, you just say, “You just let me know when you are ready to talk with me.” You can remain with him or get back to chasing a toddler or what not if you must. It rarely gets to this point if you are consistent with the first steps but I want you to have a full process just in case, so you know how it could play out all the way to the end.
The solution to your requests being met with “No” is problem solving. Read the Exploring Alternatives chapter in the Sage Parenting book for more about this topic.
You make a request, “Clean up the blocks please.”
You are met with, “No.”
Go and get down on her level and say, “Here’s the problem: the floor is covered in blocks. Why is that a problem (people could trip, they will get scattered and lost, there is no room to play anything else, etc.)? Right. So how are we going to solve it? What do you suggest?”
This really is one of those magical parenting techniques that is not at all manipulative or top-down. It is genuine and kids respond really well to it as long as you honestly don’t have an agenda for the solution, meaning you’re open minded to their suggestions. If you see that a solution likely won’t solve the problem you can say, “I’m afraid this might happen but we could try it.” Then try it. I’ve actually learned so much from my children doing this, as often the solutions that work better for them are completely doable.
Spending your days ramping up the chase after your children in an attempt to penetrate the invisible veil over their ears is a quick path to losing your sanity. Remember that there is a difference between obeying your command and respectfully responding to your request. Acknowledgment is the name of the game and it goes both ways. Raising children who will grow to be reasonable and kind adults yields short-term benefits as well in the form of a peaceful family.