One of the most frustrating aspects of parenting is figuring out how to get your child to listen the *first time* you ask them to do something. Nothing is more irritating that feeling like you need to repeat yourself, yell, or resort to punishment over simple requests. If you are struggling with little kids who don’t listen the first time, stick with me for the one simple strategy that actually works.
But first, here’s why it doesn’t work to repeat yourself in the first place:
Why it doesn’t work to repeat yourself
It tells your child that they don’t need to listen the first time
When your child has clearly heard your directions and is refusing to do what you’ve asked, repeating yourself only sends the message that they didn’t have to respond to your first request.
Your tone and body language escalates
Needing to repeat yourself over and over again is incredibly frustrating, which is why it often leads to yelling. Yelling sends the message that you are not in control over the situation, and your child senses that.
Your child learns that you aren’t going to take action
Young children crave limits and boundaries. It’s what makes them feel safe, secure, and loved. Whenever you don’t follow through on something you’ve asked them to do, they are actually left feeling more insecure. It makes them wonder on what other boundaries you might not stand your ground.
One simple strategy for first time listening
The next time you ask your child to do something and they refuse, stall, or argue….calmly and gently follow through, right away.
It looks like this:
You are about to leave the house and you ask your child to get on their shoes. They grin and run off in the other direction with clearly no intention of doing what you’ve asked. This is when you normally would be tempted to “over talk” the situation, negotiate, or dive into punishments or rewards. Instead, walk over to your child and say:
“It looks like you need a little help. I can help you with your shoes.”
You either bring the shoes to them or hold their hand and walk to where the shoes are. When your child realizes that there’s no choice about it happening, 90% of the time they will decide to do it on their own without your help. If they do end up wanting your help, then help them and chalk it up to a lesson in altruism. Say kindly, “I’m sure next time you will do it all on your own.”
Why this strategy works:
Young children crave independence. They want to be able to do things on their own, without your help. Because of this natural desire, most of the time they will refuse your help and simply choose to do whatever you are asking them to do on their own.
When they do accept your help, it’s likely because they either 1) actually need help (they may be tired, the task may seem too difficult, etc) or 2) they need to feel close to you. Refusal to cooperate is often a sign that your child needs to reconnect. Either way, you are meeting their needs by being physically present with them.
What does this strategy teach your child?
That you are confidently in charge of the situation.
You have no need to yell because you are prepared to help them right away, before you get upset.
That when you ask them to do something, it’s going to happen.
You aren’t going to say it a second time, negotiate, punish or bribe. You are able to help them if they aren’t able to do it on their own.
That you understand them and their need for autonomy.
You understand that even little things that seem like “no big deal” to us as adults can trigger big feelings in your child. Acting out and not listening are just one of the ways that your child shows you that they are struggling.
I know what you are thinking: How can I possibly “help” my child complete any task that I ask of them?
It’s actually quite simple. Most of the things that we ask young children to do are logistical… getting from one place to another or accomplishing small tasks. Putting on clothes, getting into their carseat, cleaning up their toys.
Think back to when your child was a newborn. You had to do absolutely everything for them, right? As your child grew and gained more practical skills, you slowly began passing on more self-care tasks to them as they demonstrated their capability.
Just as you can give your child more opportunities to do things on their own, you can also “reel back” some of those responsibilities whenever they are struggling. A child who is misbehaving, refusing to do what you ask, or tantruming, is demonstrating in that moment that they need some help.
This approach only works when it’s done in a calm and gentle way. You as the parent set the stage for the tone of the interaction. Your child should never see your help as a punishment. Your intentions should always be to truly help your child, not to manipulate or control them into submission.
Keep in mind
This strategy requires your full attention and commitment, especially when you are first implementing it. When you ask your child to do something, you need to be able to stop whatever it is you are doing to physically help them if needed. For this reason, it’s really important that you don’t make requests that you aren’t willing or able to follow through on.
This approach can feel hard at first because it requires your presence and your consistency. But if you stick with it, I promise it will make your life so much EASIER because your child will listen to you the very first time.