Listening skills

Teaching kids to listen

“Scotia, could you come here for a moment, please?” I call out to my seven-year-old. “I need your help in the kitchen.” (no answer) “Scotia, can you hear me?” (silence) “SCOTIA, I’m talking to you!” I end up screeching as I march into the living room — all of 10 feet away — and plant myself between my daughter and the television. “What is it, Mommy?” she asks, trying to peer around me. By this point, I’m so frustrated, I can’t remember.

Getting your child to listen — and comply — without resorting to screams, bribes, threats or lectures can test the patience of any parent, says Michelle Moreau, a family therapist in Saint John, who has three children under the age of seven. “But what many parents don’t realize is that listening is a skill that needs to be developed.”

Good listening skills can have an impact on every aspect of your child’s life, including school performance, friendships and even how well she can execute drills on the soccer field. It also makes things a lot more harmonious on the home front. If your tot or tween tends to tune you out, these strategies may help capture her attention.

Catch her eye

Sometimes children get so engrossed in what they’re doing that they really don’t hear you, especially if you’re shouting commands from another room. “You have to make sure you have your child’s attention first,” advises Stephanie Nolson, a former teacher and author of Are You Listening? A Guide for Helping a Child Learn to Listen. “Say her name, wait for her to look at you, then talk.” With younger children, it helps to crouch down to their level or to sit them on your lap. Teach them to make eye contact whenever they’re listening or talking to somebody, says Nolson.

Keep it short

Kids of every age stop listening when parents get too long-winded. Try to use fewer words to get your point across, advises Moreau. “Shoes on, please” is more effective than “Look at the time! We’re going to be late. Johnny, do you hear me? Where are your shoes?”

With younger children, it’s a good idea to replace general requests (for example, “Clean up this messy room”) with specific ones (“Please put your teddy bears back in your toy box”) so they know exactly what it is that their parents expect them to do. It’s also better to tell, then show: So follow up your directions with a brief demonstration (“See, Baby Alive goes back here with all your other dollies for the night”). Try not to overwhelm your child with requests; make one at a time, and be sure requests are reasonable in terms of age and ability.

Say it once

When I call Scotia to come for dinner and she doesn’t answer, I can almost guarantee she’s thinking, “I’m not ready to stop what I’m doing just yet. I’ll wait until Mom calls me again, then I’ll go.” But if I go back and call her a second or third time, she learns that she doesn’t really need to listen the first time, warns Moreau. “You have to set clear expectations.” For example, “Scotia, I want you to answer me the first time I call you.”

If you’re giving a younger child instructions, ask her to repeat in her own words what you just said — “What does Mommy want you to do?” — so you know that she’s heard and understood you. And if she doesn’t come to the table, start eating dinner without her.
Walk the talk

We teach children how to listen to others by the way we listen to them, says Nolson. “When you think about it, the people with the best listening skills are babies. They focus right in on you and are just so intent on what you’re saying.”

When your child is trying to tell you something, stop what you’re doing and let him know that you’re genuinely interested in what he’s saying. If that’s not realistic, say something like “I really want to listen to you, but I can’t do that right now because I have to get this chicken in the oven. As soon as I’m done, I’ll listen to you.” Even the tiniest tot can recognize when you’re distracted and just going through the motions of paying attention, says Nolson. “You don’t want your child to think that listening is something you do while you’re doing other things.

Watch your words

Your choice of words and tone of voice can make a big difference in getting your child’s attention and co-operation. “Talk softly and firmly rather than raising your voice, and try not to lecture,” advises Ranjana Jha, a family therapist at the Argyle Institute of Human Relations in Montreal. “Kids learn by observation, not lectures.” They’ll also be more open to hearing your message if they think you’re on their side rather than at their throat. Try to avoid red-flag words such as Why… especially when followed by don’t you, can’t you, won’t you — as in “Why won’t you listen?” or “Why don’t you ever pick up your things?” These questions are unanswerable and are really just blaming or making a critical statement, says Nancy Samalin in her book Loving Without Spoiling: And 100 Other Timeless Tips for Raising Terrific Kids. Samalin recommends leaving out the word why and changing the question to a clear, firm, non-accusatory statement instead (“I would like you to listen to me”; or “Those toys need to be picked up”).

Make it fun

If you want to improve your child’s listening skills, reading a book together is one of the best things you can do, says Moreau. “It teaches kids to sit down, to focus, to develop their attention skills and to finish something from start to finish.” Games like Simon Says can also help your child learn to listen and follow directions. Moreau likes to play a game she calls Story Chain with her son Evan, four. She starts the story: “Once upon a time, Evan got on a boat to Grand Manan and when he arrived.…” Evan then adds a line or two, and back and forth they go. “We have to listen carefully to each other to play, and he loves it,” says Moreau. (For more listening games, Moreau recommends reading Listen and Learn by Cheri J. Meiners.)

Give good feedback

Always try to catch your kids doing a great job listening and reinforce it, says Moreau. Whenever Nina, six, picks up her toys when asked, Toronto mom Rehana Begg makes sure she praises her efforts. “And, of course, we also have to play a few rounds of Barbies or jump rope or whatever,” she laughs.

When not listening is a problem

If your child seems to have consistent problems hearing (and not just hearing you), understanding or paying attention — check with her paediatrician or family doctor to rule out a physical condition or developmental delay. “If you feel you’ve been teaching the skills and they’re just not being acquired, go with your gut instincts and seek help,” advises Michelle Moreau, a family therapist in Saint John.

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