The best, simple way to get kids to listen to you

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Back in the Fall, I posted an article about getting kids more involved in gardening with six simple garden tasks. Of course, if they are unlikely to listen, you might never get them to the garden to try out Step 1. With two kids, two nephews, a niece and a Godson, I’m no kid-whisperer, but I’ve learned something really critical about how to get kids to listen.

Whether the kids in your life are toddlers or teens, the time will come when you need them to do something. Give this idea a try.

Hey, I can’t guarantee you’ll get results the first time you try this technique. In fact, it’s more likely you will have to practice. But, once you get the hang of it, expect to get kids to listen more than half of the time…within 5 minutes of asking with no yelling, badgering, whining or door-slamming.

Sympathize

Imagine that you started learning a brand new language three years ago. You practiced every day. You feel pretty good about the effort you put into learning this new skill. You still might not be completely fluent, but you follow most simple sentences and can ask questions in your new language.

Now, imagine you are a guest speaker at a high school where the students are native speakers of your new language. You grab lunch in the cafeteria before your scheduled speaking time.

Great, it gives you a chance to listen to the native chatter. It’s noisy, but you manage to hone in on conversations happening all around you.

You catch some words here and there. You hear words that sound close to the words you know, but are they? You try hard to focus. Even so, by the time you translate a phrase in your head, the conversation moved so quickly, you’re lost again.

Your head starts to ache. You get cranky. You tune it all out. I know because it happened to me.

That was pretty much my experience when I lived in France with a roommate who spoke no English (except the word “jump”…um, unexpected).

We drove through Northern Italy in a tiny car with two of her friends. Every once in awhile, they stopped talking to take a breath and explain some slang to me. My head ache. I couldn’t translate fast enough. And, it turns out native speakers use a lot of slang. Whatevs.

Words, words, words

I remembered that car ride years later when I heard my husband (sorry, babe) speaking at our kid. For some reason, my loving, wonderful man-of-few-words saves them all up for fast-paced conversations at our kids.

Like, take a deep breath and read this quickly…”what are you doing? Why are you still playing with that toy? We’re late, again, and you don’t seem to care. You’re just sitting there, and oh my, oh come on, you took off your shoes? Why aren’t you wearing shoes? I spent 10 minutes picking apart the knots in those laces, and why do I even bother? Ok. Did you use the potty? Where are your boots? Just wear those. Let’s go. Let’s go. Put down that toy. No, just bring it with you. Oh man, where’d I put the keys? Has anyone seen the keys? Ugh, we’re late. Come on.”

People do this all of the time, don’t they? Put yourself on the receiving end of that loooong string of words, words, words. How do you respond when this happens?

I know, when I’m on a conference call and someone is speaking a mile-a-minute, dropping business buzz-words and going on and on, barely breathing so they can make every last point…I tap my phone on and look for a distraction. Or I just zone out, stare out the window, maybe raise my eyebrows and blink, hard. And, that’s after 38 years practicing English as a native speaker. The kids only started learning English a few years ago.

Get kids to listen

To a kid, it must sound like an auctioneer…or a bunch of slang-speaking young people chatting incessantly. There has to be a better way, right?

If it was you, how would you want to be treated?

Once I made the connection to the way I felt spending hours in that car with those native Francophones (fancy way to say people who speak French…you’re an Anglophone, btw), I decided to try getting my point across to my kids in one word.

When I really need the kids to do something, I think of the key word I need them to hear. It’s a fun challenge to try to convey what you need to in one word. But, with practice, it’s really possible.

For example…

Take the example of my husband trying to get the kids into the car. If I see that they took their shoes off, I look at them and say, “boots”. I don’t get mad. I don’t say anything else. I just calmly and say, “boots”.

The kid might start chatting about the toy they’re into, but I just smile and repeat, “boots”. Sometimes I have to say “boots” five times, but most of the time, with no frustration, the kid puts on the boots within a few minutes with minimal complaining.

One step at a time

Once the boots are on, I say, “car”. When we’re in the car, I say, “belt”. And so on. It’s not a perfect system. Of course, it doesn’t always work.

You get a feel for when the kids need you to squat down to their eye level and really listen to them. If they don’t feel like you heard them and you keep repeating just one word at them, it’s annoying. That would annoy you, too, I bet. Actually when that’s the case, I do more listening than speaking.

But, under ordinary circumstances, when I want them to do something…pick up a toy, throw something away, eat their dinner, go potty, wash hands, put on a coat, get in the car or buckle up…I say “toy”, “garbage”, “eat” (that’s a useful one), “potty”, “hands”, “coat”, “car”, or “belt”.

Sometimes, I do start with their name to get their attention. Then, I say the one word that conveys what I need them to do.

Find balance

Kids need regular conversation from you, too. I am NOT advocating for a steady stream of one-word commands to be spat at your kid like sunflower seeds. Find a balance between sincere conversation, active listening and the simple commands I mention here.

One of the best things you can do is look right in your baby’s eyes and talk to her. You should talk with your children about their feelings, their day, their art and anything important to them. Ask your kids to tell you the funniest thing that happened to them today. Have great conversations.

But, when you are running late, don’t get frustrated, don’t escalate and don’t get agitated. Just think of the one word that conveys what you need. Repeat it calm and clear.

Consider visiting that post I mentioned earlier, about encouraging kids to garden with you. And, you bet…in the summer, when the kids wake up in the morning, I pop my head into their rooms and say, “garden?”

5 thoughts on “The best, simple way to get kids to listen to you

    1. Thank you so much! Results might be quick or require just a little bit of practice…but let us know how hard or easy it is for you to keep your point to just one word.

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