How to get your kids to listen


Dear Adele,

We are having trouble teaching our kids to listen and respond to our requests the first time. They ignore us, bock at instructions and sometimes downright refuse to cooperate. We never expected that a four-year-old and a six-year-old would behave this way! Can you help us improve on this aspect of our parenting, please?



Dear Ignored,

When parents used to visit my primary or junior classrooms, they would often remark at how well the kids listened to instructions and cooperated with me in the lesson. “How do you get 22 second graders or 30 fourth graders all quietly doing what they are supposed to, when we have trouble with only two at home?” was a common kind of query.

The answer is not magic parents, and competent teachers do it each and every day in their classrooms. Let me share some secrets which you can put into play at home.

The first step is to gain your children’s undivided attention by saying their name and waiting for eye contact and quiet. Stand close to them, and look at them directly. Be calm, and use a quiet respectful low tone. Ask them to stop what they are doing and give you their full attention. I used to cup my ears with the little ones and say “Listening ears please!” The routine became established with the children stopping what they were doing, cupping their ears and looking at my eyes.

Once their full attention is attained, state one instruction in a simple, clear, short, straightforward way. For example, “Put your Lego in the basket, please.” Keep the instruction positively and politely stated. For example,” All toys in the toy box, please” or “Time to wash your hands.” Avoid negative commands such as “No pushing” or “Don’t throw the toys in the basket.”

When the first instruction has been accomplished, acknowledge the children’s efforts to comply and success at the task. For example. ‘You have really collected the Lego quickly tonight. Not one piece left out on the carpet!”

Repeat these steps with the second instruction stated in age-appropriate language. For example, say “Put the basket of Lego on the second shelf.” Avoid giving a series of instructions with young children. That would be confusing and they may not be able to remember all the things you wanted. Be sure to allow time for the children to process the request.

Your children are more likely to comply with your requests if you can make a game out of it or add a bit of competition, a challenge or some humor. For example, you might say “I wonder who will have their pile of Lego in the basket first tonight? “or “You are getting so fast at putting your Lego away, I bet you can do it in under three minutes. Want to try?”

Positive verbal reinforcement providing recognition at how well the children completed the task, goes a long way to having their cooperation repeated. For example, you might say, “You are the most cooperative children I know. Well done Peter and Elizabeth!” or “What great cleaners you are Peter and Elizabeth!”

It is important to choose your timing well. Try to understand what the children are already doing, how they are feeling and why they behave the way they do. No-one likes being interrupted in an activity they are engrossed in. For example, if you ask for cleanup time seven minutes from the end of their favourite television program you are less likely to gain cooperation than if you wait until the end of the show. Sometime a warning signal is helpful by saying something like “Five minutes to cleanup, people!”

If you implement this kind of pattern with your kids consistently, they will soon follow an established pattern of cooperation with the requests you desire. Tell them what you expect, follow through supportively every time and practice will make perfect!

 I highly recommend you do a little reading on this subject. A few titles follow which might be of interest to you:

Now you know a few tricks teachers use in their classes to increase cooperation and develop good listening skills in their students. Give them a try at home and best wishes for change. May you be so successful you will change your nom de plume, Ignored!

Below are a few quotations about listening which might inspire you:

Children will listen to you after they feel listened to.— Jane Nelson

You learn when you listen. You earn when you listen-not just money but respect.— Harvey Mackay.

Obedience is the mother of success and is wedded to safety.— Aeschylus

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

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