I hate yelling at my kids.  So, How do I get my kids to listen to me the first time I say something?

With all the challenges you face each day, it’s so easy to get upset and lose it.

“Jordan, your breakfast’s ready. Please shut off your game and come to breakfast.”
Nothing. Minutes go by.

“Jordan! I said shut off your game. Come eat your breakfast.”
Nothing. More minutes go by. Waffles get cold.

“JORDAN!! BREAKFAST!! SHUT that GAME OFF NOW!! LET’S GO!!

Finally, your kiddo looks up, vaguely. “What?”

A-a-a-a-a-nd … you start yelling.

Are there better way to get kids to listen? Short answer: yes. Longer answer follows:

First, let’s backtrack a little. 

Imagine you’re getting ready for work and you’re running a bit late. You have an important meeting at nine o’clock … but first, you have to dress, make breakfast, prepare the kids’ lunches, make sure they’re adequately clothed and have all their school gear, and drop them off at school.

Sadly, they offer zero help while you fix breakfast because they’re glued to their video games. And when you call them to the table, the above scenario plays out.

Why don’t my kids listen to me the first time?

Infuriating as that might be if you want to raise your kids without raising your voice, try asking these three powerful questions:

Question #1: Why are they acting this way?

Believe it or not, they may indeed not hear you. Research shows that when young children play, read or watch TV, their brain’s actually do not register anything else that’s going on around them. They quite literally have no awareness of their surroundings.  Not listening may have more to do with brain development than refusing to listen.  Thankfully, their awareness will expand as they grow.

On the other hand, what if your child is ignoring you on purpose? We’ll deal with that in a moment.

Question #2: What do you want your child to learn?

If you want to give children everything they need to become independent little people who thrive, then your discipline must have two outcomes:  produce good behavior and teach life skills like patience, kindness, self-control, and cooperation.

  • Do you want to focus on punishment? – “If you can’t behave properly, you’ll get a timeout, young lady!”
  • Do you want to come across like a drill sergeant who expects instant obedience, no matter what?  – “I said, LET’S GO!!”

OR (preferably) …

  • Do you want to focus on mentoring and discipleship?  If so, then you will need to slow down and take a moment to teach them to be better listeners – and better helpers in the mornings.

An ancient proverb says, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Help him learn how to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.”  The same applies here: if you punish or yell at your kids, you’re not teaching them how best to cooperate or relate to you – or anyone else – in the future.

Staying focused on mentoring and discipleship is the best choice both for you and for them.  It pays huge dividends in the future!

Question #3: How can I best teach him this lesson at this moment?

There’s more than one way to get kids to listen, but the most important thing is:Make sure they actually hear you, first.

Getting kids to listen does not involve shouting.  Instead, find your compassion and stand next to your child – or stand directly between her and the screen – until you have her attention. Make eye contact. (If you’re talking to smaller children, kneel.)

Next, ask her in a warm voice to shut off the game and come to the breakfast table. If she does so right away, reward her with praise:  “Thanks for being my helper; I like it when you do what I ask.” Catching children doing good is not a one-time thing. You’ll want to repeat this process under many different circumstances, and for many years.

Rewarding children this way has two benefits:  improved behavior and increased closeness between parent and child. It’s a win/win benefit.

Now here’s the question we asked earlier: what if your child is ignoring you on purpose?Or, put another way:

What happens if your child is unwilling or defiant?

The challenge here is to correctly assess the difference between a child who is unwilling, uncommitted, and defiant and a child who lacks the essential ability to play his iPad game and listen to you at the same time.

What you do is slow down, take a moment, and assess the situation. In the seconds that follow, you can often tell if they are over-focused on the iPad game and cannot hear you, or if they are unwilling and lack the commitment and motivation to get up and go to the kitchen table.  So, let’s say they are unmotivated and ARE testing your authority. Here are a couple of options …

  • Before breakfast, say: “Breakfast is over when the clock says 8 a.m. I sure hope you make it to the table with enough time to eat Otherwise, you won’t have anything to eat until lunchtime at school.”

If she doesn’t show up after you call, let the natural consequences be the teacher: She goes to school hungry.  An empty stomach can yell far louder than you can about eating breakfast and listening to parents.  When children go to school hungry, they start asking moral questions like, “Who made all this pain for me?  If you are calm with this approach, the answer will be “I caused all this pain.”  When that happens, your children will ask the next moral question:  “How do I make this pain go away?”  The answer?  “Listen to my parents, and unhook from my game and eat breakfast before 8 a.m.”

If that option feels a bit too intense, then try these options.

  • “Sweetie, if you can’t control your behavior, then I have to…” (turn off the TV, stop your allowance, take away your video game, whatever fits your values.) “So, do you want to shut your game off now, or shall I do it?”  When you practice this on a consistent basis, kids respond quickly!

If they shut the game off and go to the table, then praise their cooperation. But if they don’t …

  • Quietly wait 5 seconds. If there’s no response, do not repeat yourself. Simply say, “This is so sad. Kids who can’t seem to shut off their game lose the privilege of playing it today.” If he comes to the table, praise him. If not, then stand by your word. Be empathic for the rest of the day, but No game.
  • Quietly wait 5 seconds. If there’s no response… Say NOTHING, but calmly (let me say that again, calmly) shut down the game while they are watching it, walk back to the kitchen table, and finish your meal. Here is the key to this technique: Don’t engage the whining. Instead, when they protest (and they will), just say, “I love you too much to argue.” If they come to the table, praise them. If not, go brain-dead, remain calm, find your compassion and repeat the following until they calm down: “I’m sorry you feel this way. I love you too much to argue.”

Getting kids to listen the first time can be a challenge.  But don’t slacken in your resolve. You’re the parent, not their buddy.  If you stay consistent, it won’t be long before they’re ready, willing, and quite able to join you at the breakfast table and enjoy it.

A Point to Ponder

Taking time to ask critical questions like Why, What, and How ensures that you’re responsive, not reactive to your children.  These questions help you focus on discipleship, not punishment.  They keep you curious, creative and flexible, so you are calm enough to turn the event into a learning situation, rather than a punitive situation.

Even more, slowing down to figure out how best to deal with the situation, prevents you from screaming like a banshee and “losing face” with your kids. It keeps your blood from boiling and helps maintain your energy, peace, and joy.

When children are unwilling or unable to listen to you, it’s essential that your parenting style is a mixture of being kind and firm, demanding and responsive.  Parenting this way makes vital deposits in children’s “I MATTER” account.  In the end, children will love you, respect you, and follow your leadership with less drama, when they know they are important and matter to you, regardless of their behavior.

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Steve Cuffari

Author: Steve Cuffari For many, Steve Cuffari is the mentor that parents call on to make their parenting style warmer, easier and more affective. He is the founder of inTouch Parenting, a company devoted to helping today's parents calm the chaos, raise emotionally intelligent kids, and nurture families that thrive. read more about Steve Cuffari here...

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