Teaching children to listen to parents
Wal-Mart rarely fails to disappoint in providing a parenting lesson, and this particular day was no different. While I was waiting in line to check out, I noticed a mother in front of me with three young children. The harried young mother was trying to empty her basket while attempting to corral her two older kids and keep the youngest in the cart. This child kept trying to climb out of the cart while the mom kept telling him to stay put.
Finally, she used those words frustrated parents use to punctuate their threat.
“I mean it,” she said, while turning to finish emptying the cart.
The little guy understood exactly what she meant and proceeded to climb out of the cart. His mom looked over in exasperation.
“OK, you can get out, but stay by the cart,” she instructed.
The little guy didn’t give any indication he heard her. He stepped over to the candy display and began checking it out. His mom looked over and reminded him he was supposed to stay by the cart. He pointedly ignored her, so in a firm “I-mean-business” voice, she told him he could stay by the candy, but couldn’t go anywhere else.
Continuing to ignore her, he walked down to the end of the checkout stand. This pattern continued until he had worked his way out of the store.
This mom thought she was teaching her son to listen to her, when actually she was teaching him to ignore her.
Sometimes parents mistakenly think their words by themselves have power, that by simply making a request, children will eagerly comply and do as they are told.
In reality, children learn to tune out their parents when there is no action or consequence backing up those words.
The little tyke at Wal-Mart had learned well. He knew his mom’s words were nothing more than loud but impotent prattle. He simply waited her out. She gave up, and he got his way.
The good news is if children can be taught to ignore parents, they can be taught to listen to parents, too. The trick is to use few words and more actions. Pick a behavior to address, like staying close to Mom in Wal-Mart. Make a plan of what the consequence will be should the child ignore your request to stay close. State your request, letting the child know her options and making it clear that if the child has difficulty choosing, you’ll be happy to choose for her. Some choices could be to either stay within sight or leave the store (yes, that means you, too), time out at home, no ice cream stop, buckled into the cart, hand-holding … you get the idea. Then, without saying another word, allow the consequence to do the talking.
It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes energy, but there’s no way around it. Be consistent, and even the child who has the greatest difficulty hearing will begin to listen.
Karen Nadon is a YouthZone counselor.
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