Ever notice how your child's bionic ears pick up every word of your "private" conversations, yet when you really need him to listen it's like he's switched off his hearing? "Between school and home, kids this age commonly grow tired of paying attention and decide they need to tune out," says Doreen Miller, a parent educator at the Institute for Parenting at Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York. But you need your kid to listen, so tailor the way you're delivering the message to prevent a communication failure. Try these tips to break your child's sound-free barrier.
Avoid Information Overload
Your child's brain can only process so much. Hit her with too many details -- "Turn off the TV, then go upstairs, get changed, brush your teeth, and comb your hair" -- and she won't be able to recall anything past step one or two. Be too vague -- "Get ready for bed" -- and she won't take your request seriously, or chances are she'll probably skip a couple of steps. Instead, split your request into two parts, suggests Miller. Start with something like, "When Arthur is over, it's time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed." Then once the TV is off, continue with, "Okay, honey, pj's and toothbrushing are next. Do you want to skip or hop into the bathroom?"
When you dwell on a topic for too long, your child will tune out. For instance, if you say, "Honey, we're meeting Julius in the park and you'll want to climb at the playground. So you have to change out of your sandals before we leave home," it's unlikely that he'll change into appropriate shoes. Instead, be concise and make the request up front: "Honey, put on your sneakers now because we're going to the playground."
Work on Your Delivery
Your child will listen better if you engage more than just her sense of hearing. A visual approach (looking her in the eye) combined with a tactile one (placing your hands on her shoulders) can help her focus better on what you're saying, says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children and Families at the Erikson Institute, in Chicago. When Gractia Manning, of Dayton, Ohio, wants to make sure her 6-year-old daughter, Kate, is listening, she'll ask her to repeat what she heard. "In the past, if I said ?There's no eating in the family room while the babysitter's here,' Kate would say okay and then later -- after she'd broken the rule -- claim that she never heard me say that," explains Manning.
Don't Sound Like a Broken Record
If you feel like you're saying the same things over and over, stop. Kids can become conditioned to wait to respond until you've said something for the fifth time. "Your words become nothing but background noise," says Dr. Nickels. Besides, your child's teacher doesn't spend all day repeating herself, so why should you? Your kid will be more inclined to do what's asked of him if he understands that his actions have clear, enforceable consequences. Give him specific instructions no more than twice, and be sure to follow through with appropriate disciplinary actions if he doesn't comply. For instance, to get don't sound your child to pick up his Legos you might say, "Jake, please go upstairs and put your Lego pieces in the blue bin." If he doesn't listen to you, warn him that he won't be able to play with the Legos for the rest of the day if he doesn't clean up, says Dr. Nickels. If he still blows off your request, take away the Legos. On the flip side, acknowledge when he follows directions the first time. Saying "Thanks for being a good listener" will reinforce his desire to pay attention.
Make Listening a Game
Your child spends a significant portion of her day being talked to -- and that's tiresome. Sometimes little ears need to tune in to some fun. Fine-tune your child's listening skills by exposing her to a variety of auditory experiences. Take a walk together and listen for sounds like birds or insects, the wind in the trees, and the crunching of grass. Groove to kid-friendly tunes on your iPod and discuss what they mean.
Give Your Full Attention
You may think that you're able to listen to your child while watching the news or texting your BFF. But what your child sees is that Mom is only half listening. And if you're not paying attention, why should he? "My research shows that children as young as preschool age notice when adults aren't fully engaged in their conversations," says Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D., author of Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn. Of course, not everything your child has to say is a showstopper. Still, try to focus on one form of communication at a time. That means you can fix dinner while chatting, but you shouldn't watch TV, Google, or text while your first-grader tries to tell you about his day. Give him your undivided attention: Make eye contact, acknowledge what he's saying, and ask questions. Says Dr. Jalongo: "Kids feel appreciated and valued when you take the time to really listen, plus they learn to reciprocate."
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.