Helping Kids Listen: 5 Essential Tips

It’s one of the most common complaints from parents: their kids don’t listen to them. If you have to repeat what you say multiple times before your child pays attention, your frustration can lead to anger. Helping kids listen can reduce stress and conflict.

What do you mean by “listen”?

When parents say their kids don’t listen, they may mean different things:

  • “My kids don’t respond.” This is the feeling you get when your kids tune you out. You’re speaking, but their attention is on the video screen or the family pet, not on you, or they choose not to answer.
  • My kids don’t pay attention.” This is what’s going on when you child hears you and maybe even says, “Uh huh,” but doesn’t remember or follow through on what you said. 
  • “My kids don’t mind.” If you know your children hear what you say but they don’t obey, that’s a different problem.

Identify the problem when your child doesn’t listen, and focus on the results you want.

Are there hearing or language issues?

Before getting too upset, eliminate the possibility that your child has limitations on hearing or is behind in language development. Children with poor hearing usually don’t react to other sounds, and may be less able to communicate clearly when they speak — these things will be noticeable at other times besides when you tell your child to get ready for school.

Your child’s pediatrician will usually check hearing and language development during routine check ups. If you are concerned about these issues, talk with your doctor. 

Helping kids listen

Establish eye contact. Not listening can be a matter of not wanting to hear what you said. If you call, “Did you take out the trash?” from the kitchen and get no response, it’s entirely possible that your child did not take out the trash and doesn’t want to. By “not hearing” your question, your child may sidestep an unwanted chore. 

Make eye contact and you can be sure that your intent to communicate is clear, so the “I didn’t hear you” excuse is no longer on the table.

Reduce nagging. Human brains are hard-wired to pay attention to new information, not old information. Imagine if you continued to be aware of the feeling of the chair you’re sitting in throughout the entire time you sit in it. It would be hard to pay attention to anything else. That means that our attention naturally diminishes when we recognize something as old information. If you are tired of telling your child to do homework, you can be quite sure that your child is tired of hearing it. The reminder to do homework can become background noise.

Set up routines for things you tell your child every day. For example, set an alarm for homework time, 30 minutes after your child gets home from school. Soon it will become a habit — and it won’t depend on your reminders. 

For things like “Share with your brother” or “Don’t give your food to the dog,” you can try saying, “What am I about to tell you?”. That can bring your child’s attention to the behavior without the dismissive response.

If nothing else, get out of the habit of saying these things repeatedly. If your child knows that you will say, “Put your shoes on” eight times before you really expect to leave the house, there’s no reason to take action before the eighth repetition.

Change it up. Often, not listening is a response to an order. If your child resists orders, try phrasing things in a different way. Instead of saying, “Put your toys away” you can say, “If you’re through playing with the dinosaurs, let’s put them back in their box.” Some parents find that a single word — in this case, maybe “toybox” or “dinosaurs” — will get their child’s attention. Instead of recognizing an order and automatically ignoring it, your child has to think about the communication.

Offer a choice. Experiments show that being offered a choice makes people more likely to cooperate. People asked whether they want an apple or a banana are more likely to eat a piece of fruit than people told they should eat a piece of fruit. People told they should tell their dentist if they need a break are less likely to ask for a break. There’s something about feeling in control that encourages cooperation. 

So ask your child, “Do you want to get dressed before breakfast or eat breakfast first?” Notice that this is not, “Do you want to get dressed?” The answer to that might be “No.” Give alternatives that you can accept.

Model good listening. It’s not a pleasant thought, but sometimes we don’t listen to our kids. If you find yourself saying, “Uh huh” while looking at your phone when your children tell you about their day, you can’t really expect them to listen to you. The same is true if you don’t listen to other adults when they talk. Your behavior sets expectations.

Make eye contact, listen, and respond when your child talks to you. Then make it clear that you expect the same courtesy when you talk to them. Helping kids listen gives them a valuable life skill.