Help your child learn to listen

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

We pay a lot of attention to hearing. Newborns get their hearing tested in most states, and periodic hearing screening is part of regular checkups. We know which children cannot hear. So why is it that so many kids don’t listen?

When we’re raising little kids, we know that we’re supposed to talk all the time. We yammer on in the grocery store – “Look! An apple! And that guy has a brown hat!” – because it is true that children exposed to more words from their caretakers get better word skills, quicker. Even if they’re not paying complete attention, talking to your children when they’re young is how they learn to communicate. But then something happens. We keep talking, and they stop listening.

This can be fixed.  It’s time for an action plan: How to re-train your child to listen. It will take some work, but in the long run they’ll be far less yelling and teeth gnashing. Do yourself a favor and tackle this before all of your hair falls out.

What I suggest is a period of “listening training,” during which both you and your kids learn new habits. Be consistent and strong, and use all of the steps below. As your child gets better at listening, you’ll be able to back off of some of these, gradually. But at first, it’s best to take big steps to make progress. You need to kick yourself and your kids out of the “not listening” rut, and it might take a bit of a push.

Stop talking so much. Your children are used to the fact that a lot of what you say isn’t really important, and doesn’t require them to respond or do anything. So they’re used to not really paying attention. Cut back on the chatter—or at least start to develop a different voice to use when you really need your kids to listen.

Get your child’s attention before you tell them something important. It’s takes a few extra seconds, but it saves a whole lot of misunderstanding later on. Walk over, touch Pepe’s chin, make him look at you. “Sweetie, I need to tell you something. Stop playing and get your shoes on.”

Avoid vague adult phrases. You want your son to go kiss grandma? Tell him to. Don’t say “I’ll bet grandma would like a kiss” to a 14 month old and expect him to connect the dots. “It’s time to clean your room,” “Why don’t you stop punching your friend?”, and “I wish someone would help me clean the kitchen” are all vague and indirect and kind of, well, weenie-ish. During “listening training”, get more direct.

Avoid instructions you can’t enforce. During listening training, it’s best to avoid giving commands that you really can’t follow through. “Stop fidgeting” is tough to make happen—if your child don’t stop, how are you going to enforce it? “Don’t make faces,” “Be more respectful,” “Just hold still” are all reasonable things for advanced listeners, but at least at first you’re not going to be able to enforce these kinds of commands. During initial listening training, stick with specific, simple commands that you can make happen if your child doesn’t. “Turn off the TV,” “Pick up your socks,” “Stop pulling the dog’s tail” are good, simple instructions that parents can enforce.

Say it once, like you mean it—then make it happen. If he doesn’t turn off the TV, you do it. If he doesn’t pick up his socks, take him by the hands and make it happen. If he keeps pulling the dog’s tail, shut the dog up in another room.Say it once, and mean it, and if it doesn’t happen immediately make it happen. The idea here is that mom’s word is final. You say it. It happens. Always. (That’s why you need to avoid saying things you can’t actually enforce, at first. After a while, once your child gets in the habit of listening, you’ll be able to bend that rule. But first you need good listening habits!)

Don’t count. I know, I know. A lot of people like the “1-2-3” business, and they’ve sold a lot of books (far, far more than me. I’m not bitter.) I don’t like it. You count 1,2… and what you’re really saying is “OK, you don’t need to listen now… or now… but by golly soon enough I’m going to mean it!” I really prefer “say it once and mean it once”, and I think in the long run it works better.


Be positive. Children will not learn new behaviors if they’re always in the doghouse. If there is a lot of criticism going on, and you’re giving your child the impression that you’re mad a lot, this new listening training thing isn’t going to work. You need to make your relationship more positive, loving, and supportive first. The Greenies is one good method of bringing more positives into the lives of preschoolers. Once you’ve started listening training, make sure that every time your child does actually listen—the first time—there’s positive and specific and immediate feedback. “Thanks for taking care of the TV, buddy!”

But don’t turn your feedback into another opportunity to get a negative dig it. “Thanks for picking up your socks. Why don’t you do that all the time when I ask you to?” Just pushes him back to the doghouse. Stay away from negative comments after positive feedback.

Listening is a skill, like riding a bike or peeling an orange all in one stripe. It takes practice, and sometimes it starts with stopping some bad habits. Once you’ve started listening training, every success will help develop and reinforce a new habit. Kids can listen—if you help them learn to do it, and if you help them practice.

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2 Comments on “Help your child learn to listen”

  1. Carrie Buchanan Says:

    What a wonderful post! Certainly it is quite timely for me with 3 boys under 4yrs. A little consistency goes a long way. Thank you Dr. Roy!


  2. I’m pretty sure this works on husbands as well!


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