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When Your Kids Tune You Out

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child in shopping cart, playing video game
Illustration by Brian Mellema
What causes kids to not listen? Distraction is a major obstacle, but inconsistent or unclear boundaries, and a lack of respect, are also big contributors.

At the grocery store recently, I saw a father pushing his young daughter in a cart while she played a game on a smartphone. “Would you like these?” the father asked, holding up some vegetables. But the girl wasn’t listening, and didn’t respond. So the father asked again. Again, no reply.

The dad’s frustration kicked in, and he shoved the vegetables directly under his daughter’s face to disrupt her view of the phone. I almost laughed aloud at the ridiculousness of this father waving veggies in his daughter’s face.

Does it ever seem like your kids need a hearing test? While most kids don’t have trouble hearing, there’s often scant evidence they are listening, especially to what their parents ask of them. Laundry is still on the floor, the TV is on, and homework isn’t started.

What factors impact a child’s inability to listen? Clearly, distraction is a major obstacle, but inconsistent or unclear boundaries, and a lack of respect, are also contributors. To get your kids to tune in with better reception, try the following.

Ensure everyone is paying attention, and that they understand each other.

Sometimes we speak while walking away, use vague words or talk while a child is in the middle of doing something else. Here’s an easy way to improve listening in your home: Have everyone set aside obvious distractions, make sure everyone is paying attention, and then confirm that what you’re trying to communicate to your kids has been received. Ask them to repeat what you’ve said.

Your words must mean something.

Be consistent with boundaries, limits, consequences, values and communication. If you say, “We’re going to leave in five minutes” but consistently leave 20 minutes later, kids will understandably learn to ignore the five-minute warning. And if there is no consistent consequence for breaking a rule, your child will gradually learn that the boundaries you’ve established are just there for decoration. Consistency is critical.

Demonstrate the behavior you expect.

Respect for your word can hinge on how well you respect your child’s words. When your kids are speaking to you, do you stop and listen? If you routinely tune them out while you’re on the phone, they might not feel valued, heard and understood. So create a culture of mutual respect for each other’s communication. Model respect, grace and forgiveness.

Celebrate along the way.

I love to celebrate growth and progress. Find ways to celebrate the loving discipline of listening in your home. Find ways to honor the discipline of listening by giving high-fives and acknowledging when communication is done well. A little encouragement goes a long way.

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