How to Get Your Child to Listen to You The First Time

Do you feel like a broken record -- repeating the same instruction to your child over and over? Not sure whether to book them a hearing test or sign yourself into the looney bin?
01/30/2015 11:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do you feel like a broken record -- repeating the same instruction to your child over and over? Not sure whether to book them a hearing test or sign yourself into the looney bin?

How can you get your child to listen to you the first time you ask them to do something?

I used to go nuts over my boys' inability to hear me. I got louder and louder until I'd morphed into a crazed chronic shout-aholic. Things got really out of control.

Of course I blamed everything on my kids, but once I began to turn inwards and look at my own role in it all, I had a change of heart.

I began to take care of myself better and it allowed me to think more clearly before reacting. I enrolled in a wonderful parenting skills class which transformed our family life in just a few weeks.

I've finally cracked the secret to getting my kids to listen to me the first time I say something. Want in on it? Here it is:

Kids have selective hearing. They tune out the sound of your voice unless it's something they want to hear. You may have noticed husbands suffer this same affliction...

So, what do we do? We repeat.

"Jack, I told you to put on your shoes. We're leaving now."

And we repeat ourselves again, louder and more annoyed. And again, this time with exasperation, then anger.

We've inadvertently trained our child to only really pay attention once we've said it a few times or have begun shouting.

To gain better cooperation with your child, you're going to have to change your own behavior first.

Gulp. This was a hard pill for me to swallow too.

We want to blame them and make them be the ones to change, but the change begins with us.

We need to stop taking it personally when they ignore us and that's easier to do when you accept that it's not about you. Kids need to learn how act and the best way to teach them is by example, not getting mad at them.

Has your kid ever wanted your attention and you've said, "Yeah, in a minute," and then a minute goes by and you're annoyed that they've already asked again? We're being hypocrites by expecting them to listen to us, but not vice-versa.

So, here's what you need to do to get your child to start listening to you the first time:

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1. Sit down and have a chat.
Lovingly explain that you're no longer going to shout or repeat and from now on when you ask them to do something, they'll need to do it. Without blaming them, try to describe how you feel when they don't listen. Tell them how happy you'll feel when you don't have to repeat or shout to be heard.

2. Write it down as a rule.
When it's there in black and white you can point to the rule, rather than saying it all over again. Reward them with positive feedback each time they cooperate. Remember that the rule applies to you too. Just as you're expecting your child to form a new habit of listening to you, it will also be a challenge for you to form a new habit in giving instructions. (See steps 3 and 4 below.) You'll also need to model the behavior you want to see by listening to them when they need you. It's a two way deal.

3. Give your instruction in a firm, but warm tone.
Don't reserve your most sarcastic, exasperated, shouty voice for your family. When you use a nice tone, you'll not only get better cooperation, but you'll feel better doing it. I used to put a sticky note up saying: Tone of voice.

4. Get into their space.
If you're in the habit of barking orders from one room to another, this will be a new challenge for you, but worth the effort. Go to them. Engage them. Get them to look at you. Have them repeat the request back to you.

"Olivia, what have I asked you to do now?'

"Stop playing and get undressed for my bath?"

"Yes. Thank you for listening to me the first time. See you in the bathroom!"

5. See it from your child's point of view.
This is not a dictatorship where your child must always drop whatever they're doing the second you say it. Here's a little mantra I love by parenting expert Bonnie Harris:

'My child's agenda is just as important to them as my agenda is to me.'

It's hard to validate that your child feels it's just as important to finish his video game as you feel it's important he comes to eat the meal you've just prepared. But imagine if you were in the middle of a great TV show and your husband suddenly burst in and ordered you to look at some tax papers NOW. Would you immediately switch it off and gleefully skip to the next room with him? Or would you feel annoyed and pissed off or try to worm your way out of it?

So, knowing that dinner's nearly ready, give your child the heads up that in five minutes they'll need to come to the table.

Don't shout this out from the kitchen. Stop what you're doing and go to them. Make eye contact and tell them in person. If your child is engrossed in something, take a moment before giving your instruction to engage with them about what they're doing.

"What are you watching, Jake?"

"This really cool show about cars."

"Wow, that really does look cool. Look at that red one! Now Jake, look at me for a minute. Thank you. In five minutes your dinner is ready. You can press record on that if you want and then you need to wash your hands straight away and come to the table."

"OK."

"What do you need to do now?"

"Record this and wash my hands."

"Good, yes. And then come to the table. Thanks for listening, Jake. See you at the table in 5!"

It feels like it will take a long time to stop what you're doing to go to your child, engage them, give the instruction and have it repeated back, but let's compare this to shouting the instruction from another room several times.

By the time he comes to the table you're peeved that you had to repeat and yell, he's upset that he had to stop watching his show and now everyone's in a bad mood. He may act out during his meal and then you have yet another battle on your hands.

By taking just a minute to give the instruction politely, in person, you'll both feel happier and more relaxed.

Always remember to give positive feedback every time they listen to you the first time.

"I really love how you came to the table the first time I asked you. Thank you!"

If you find yourself slipping back into repeating yourself, start over again.

Remember new habits take time. If you or your child slip up, take a deep breath, see it as a mistake, be forgiving -- then try, try again!

Whenever I'm complimented on how well my boys listen to me, I smile. It isn't always easy and we still have our moments, but I wouldn't go back to the way things were for anything.

More hugs, less shouting.