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How to get your kids to listen

You’ve said it a thousand times. Why can’t kids just do as they’re told?

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Like a lot of six-year-olds, Frances Stacey-Ayuso likes to conduct “experiments”: mixing together random household liquids to see what will happen. And while her moms, Lisa Ayuso and Victoria Stacey, of Toronto, want to foster their daughter’s curiosity, they’ve also told her on more than one occasion not to mix together the different soaps and lotions in the bathroom.

“For one thing, it’s wasteful and messy,” says Stacey. “And for another, it’s expensive. Lisa has some fancy, high-priced soaps that even I’m not allowed to touch.”

So when Stacey recently returned to the bathroom to find Frances happily stirring together a bunch of Ayuso’s Aveda products in the tub, she was gobsmacked—and more than a little annoyed. “I said, ‘Frances, I asked you specifically not to touch the soaps. Why didn’t you listen?’”

Read more: 10 things to forgive your kids for>

Not listening: It’s one of the most common sources of tension between parents and children. We ask our kids to do something (get dressed, come to the table, put away their clothes, let the dog out, turn off the TV) or not to do something (jump on the couch, hit their siblings, make fart jokes at the table), and they act as though we haven’t said a word. “It’s like I’m the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon,” says Sarah Lavigne, the Montreal mom of Rafael, 7, and Gabriel, 4. “I’m repeating, ‘Go brush your teeth. Go brush your teeth. Go brush your teeth,’ and all they’re hearing is, ‘Wah wah wah wah wah.’”

Are our kids trying to drive us crazy on purpose? No, says Christine Vita, a Thunder Bay, Ont., social worker who specializes in children’s mental health. It’s just that kids have different priorities. “Adults need to remember that kids are not little adults. Tooth brushing or getting dressed simply aren’t as important to them.”

Doone Estey, a Toronto parenting educator and co-author of the recently published book Raising Great Parents: How to Become the Parent Your Child Needs You to Be, agrees. “Parents think that kids should do what we say because we’re the parents and we know better,” she says. “But nobody likes being told what to do, and that includes our kids. They’re thinking, ‘Wait a second. I deserve a little respect here, and I’m going to dig in my heels and show you.’ And that’s when the rebellion and the disrespect come out.”

Read more: Is my toddler’s behaviour normal?>

A kid who isn’t listening, says Estey, is telling her parents, “I’m forging my own identity, and I’m not getting enough of a say. I’m ready for more responsibility and more power.” To move from yelling and conflict to co-operation and collaboration, parents need to hand over some control to the kids.

Strategies for doing this are surprisingly simple. If it’s not a life-or-death situation, then back off. Things that fall under this category might include what kids wear, the state of their rooms or their hair, and whether they need to wear hats and mittens (tuck them into the backpack for when they need them instead, and the power struggle is avoided). The more we can give kids choice and control about the small things, says Vita, who for five years taught the Triple P “positive parenting program” through the Children’s Centre Thunder Bay, the more likely kids are to accommodate us on the stuff that’s truly important.

For those bigger-ticket items—say, getting out the door on time—enlist the kids’ help. Call a family meeting and strategize on how to make mornings better: What time do we need to wake up? Should we get dressed before or after breakfast? Should we have TV in the morning? Who’s going to make lunches? Write down the agreed-upon plan and post it somewhere visible. Then, says Estey, let the routine be the boss. Rather than nagging a child to eat or get dressed, say, “What’s the next step for our morning? What’s our house rule about iPods before you’re dressed?” If the established rules aren’t working, call another family meeting to brainstorm solutions.

Read more: 6 discipline fallbacks and how to fix them>

The key to making this plan work—and this step is so hard for most parents—is that we have to let our kids fail. That means saying, “Oh no, you forgot your backpack. I’m sure you’ll manage, and I know you’ll remember it tomorrow,” rather than turning back to retrieve it for them or saying “I told you so.” And if your daughter goes to school with bed-head or your son can’t hand in his homework, so be it. “As parents, of course we want our kids to look good and be clean and have a nutritious breakfast,” says Vita. “But we also need to pick our battles. Kids need natural consequences and they need to experience disappointment and frustration in order to develop.”

Kids also need empathy. But too often, says Estey, we say things like, “I don’t care that he hit you first. There’s no hitting.” An empathetic response might be: “Oh, he hit you? That must have hurt. Do you need a kiss?” We don’t validate the hitting, she says, but we do let kids know that their feelings are valid and important. The more we respect their feelings, the more likely they are to return the favour.

For Calgary-mom-of-two Jen Taylor, empathy means trying to figure out and address what’s going on underneath the behaviour. “If my five-year-old calls her brother ‘stupid,’ I don’t really need to tell her not to name-call and that he isn’t stupid,” she says. “She knows that.” Instead, Taylor tells her daughter to apologize (to make it clear that the behaviour isn’t OK) and then tries to focus on the feelings behind the problem: “Is she frustrated because she can’t keep up? Did she not get enough sleep last night? Did she have a hard day at school? Does she not have the words she needs when she’s angry? If we focus on the actual problem, it’s usually easier to diffuse the situation and find a way out.”

Read more: Discipline strategies for all ages>

Stacey and Ayuso noticed a definite uptick in Frances’s failure to listen as their second daughter’s due date approached. “We’d catch her using the new baby’s clothes for her dolls after we asked her not to,” recalls Stacey, “and she repeatedly ignored our pleas not to sit in the baby stroller, which had a 40-pound weight limit. In the weeks before the baby’s birth, I could barely get Frances to get ready in the mornings—as though if she procrastinated enough I might go into labour and she wouldn’t have to go to school!”

Things came to a head after the birth. Frances burst into tears after visiting Stacey and the newborn in the hospital. “She said to Lisa, ‘I just don’t want to leave them,’” says Stacey. “Lisa started to talk to her about her new role as big sister, but Frances said, ‘It’s not that. I want them to come home so I can help take care of them.’ It turned out that one of the reasons she’d been acting up was that she was anxious about me or the baby not being healthy and thought the fact that we were in the hospital meant that we were sick.”

Once Frances’s moms listened to her and understood her fears, they could explain that everyone was fine, and help Frances find ways to fit into her new role. “She’s in charge of picking out Maggie’s outfits for the day, and helping bathe her,” says Stacey. And while Frances’s listening skills still aren’t perfect—whose are?—being able to talk about her feelings, says Stacey, has made a big difference.

7 No-fail Strategies to Get Kids to Listen

Make eye contact “I can call, ‘Come for dinner!’ repeatedly from another room, but if I go right up and look them in the eye and say, ‘Hi! Please come for dinner now,’ they’ll look up and say, ‘Oh, OK.’” says Montreal mom Sarah Lavigne.

Describe the problem It can take the heat out of a situation if you focus on what needs to happen as opposed to kids’ shortcomings. Rather than “How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your clothes?” say, “I see clothes on the floor.” Or try giving info instead of orders: “Wet towels belong on the rack, not on your bed” rather than “Hang up your towel!”

Say it with a word “The more I explain, the more zoned out she gets,” says Victoria Stacey of her six-year-old, Frances. “So, instead of, ‘I worked all day and spent three hours making dinner and now I have to tidy up the whole kitchen and I’m only asking you to bring in your plate,’ I’ll say, ‘Frances, your plate.’ It’s much more effective.”

Write a note Some kids might react more co-operatively to a written list (or one with pictures) than a verbal one. Hand him a checklist with “Breakfast, get dressed, make bed, brush teeth” to see if it prevents your nagging and his stalling.

Tell them what you’re going to do, not what they need to do You may not be able to control what your kids do, but you can control your own actions. “It’s time to leave, so I’m going to the car. See you there,” is more effective than harping at them from the doorway about what they should be doing.

Empathize and validate Statements like “I wish we didn’t have to go to school today, either. Wouldn’t it be nice to stay home and play games?” let a child know that his feelings are important to you and you’re listening—even if, ultimately, he has to go to school.

Watch your timing You’ll have more success asking your child to set the table at the end of her TV show than in the middle, plus it shows respect for something that’s important to her.

A version of this article appeared in our October 2014 issue with the headline “Listen up!,” p. 58.