Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Saturday, January 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 40° Cloudy
News >  Features

They Just Won’t Listen Children Seem To Have A Keen Ability To Blithely Tune Out Parental Instructions And Requests

By Lisa Collier Cool Working Mother Magazine

First of two parts

When I opened the door of my 7-year-old daughter’s room 20 minutes after I’d sent her upstairs to put on her leotard and tights Rosalie was sitting on the floor in her underwear, happily playing with a Barbie doll. Though I tried to stay calm, my voice grew sharp with annoyance as I asked, “What are you doing? I told you to get ready for ballet!”

Few things are as frustrating, and as infuriating, as having our children ignore our instructions. But how do we convince youngsters that it’s important to follow directions not just to please us or avoid punishments, but to make their own lives easier as well? (After all, a child’s health and safety can depend on her ability to follow orders. And kids function better in school, sports and other group activities when they know how to carry out instructions.) Here’s some expert guidance on getting your kids to do as they’re told.

What to avoid

The methods parents typically use to get children to listen are often ineffective or actually encourage noncompliance, according to a new study by Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and author of “Beyond Discipline: Parenting that Lasts a Lifetime” (Westport Publishers). He and other experts advise steering clear of some common mistakes.

Don’t say “don’t.” A negative instruction like, “Don’t let me come home and find that you still haven’t done your homework!” is much more likely to be ignored than one that gives a positive alternative, such as, “Please get started on your homework right after you eat your snack this afternoon.” Emphasizing what your child is not to do has pitfalls, Christophersen says. Kids under age 5 frequently misunderstand negative directions - particularly if they are shouted - and they may hear, “Don’t bring that wet dog into your room” as a command to “Bring the wet dog into your room.” Older children may find that disregarding a “don’t” can be more rewarding than obeying it: They get your attention that way.

Reasoning gets little or no results. Explaining why certain actions are undesirable - “If you leave your toys lying around, you might trip over them and hurt yourself” - has no impact on children under age 6, Christophersen finds. Your words simply go in one ear and out the other. “A young child doesn’t relate to abstract future consequences, so he’s not likely to be motivated by a warning like this. Since he isn’t hurt right now, he doesn’t feel there’s anything to worry about.”

With an older child, a detailed list of reasons for every rule can spark a tedious debate or, at best, create short-lived compliance, he adds. You might get a 10-year-old to return a book to the library on time by explaining that if she doesn’t, she’ll have to pay the fine out of her allowance. However, she’ll probably forget to return the next book she borrows because, at this age, dipping into her piggy bank isn’t nearly as painful as wasting precious playtime to walk to the library.

The more you nag, the less kids listen. It’s very easy for parents to slip into the “nagging and shouting syndrome,” observes psychotherapist James Windell, author of “Children Who Say No When You Want Them To Say Yes” (Macmillan Books). “When a child doesn’t respond the first time she’s told to do something, parents often repeat the request over and over until they finally lose their temper and start shouting. The message you give your child when you let her tune you out many times is that there’s no need to pay attention to you until you’re screaming.”

Avoid empty ultimatums or threats. Making impulsive threats when a child doesn’t listen, such as “Do this right now, or I’m going to ground you!” is another common mistake parents make, Windell says. This can create a no-win situation, because kids resent being forced to give in. As a result, they often get angry and end up focusing on that anger instead of concentrating on what you asked them to do.

Next week: Tactics to try

MEMO: Reprinted from Working Mother. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

Reprinted from Working Mother. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

Wordcount: 710
Tags: parenting

Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter

Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.

You have been successfully subscribed!
There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email