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Why Children Fail to Listen

By Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. [Guest Article]

I hear this complaint from parents just about every day. “My child just doesn’t listen.” I tell them, “My guess is that you aren’t giving them an example of what listening is about. You are probably lecturing too much. Children will listen to you after they feel listened to.

One day my son said to me, “Mom, I wish you had helped me set more goals for myself?” I was a bit shocked because I thought I had tried to get him to set goals and that he just didn’t want to. If you read that last sentence closely, you’ll see the problem. Helping him set goals is very different from trying to get him to set goals. My way of trying to get him to set goals included lectures and nagging.

Put yourself in a child’s place. What do you feel like doing when an adult lectures or nags at you? Probably the same as most children—resist and rebel.

Let’s dig a little deeper to see why. Lecturerers usually invite lecturerees to feel inadequate and stupid, and that hurts. Most people are willing to experience their hurt feelings for about 1/10th of a second before they cover up those feelings with anger and strike back or simply rebel—actively or passively.

We’ll get back to goal setting in awhile. First it is helpful to know what isn’t working so you can give it up and use what does work.

Why Lectures Don’t Work: How to Motivate and Inspire without Criticism

Do you wake up in the morning thinking, “I wonder what I can do today to make my child feel stupid, inadequate, and insecure. How can I destroy my child’s self-esteem?” Of course not. Yet, that is what criticism and lectures do. How would you feel if someone was constantly saying to you, “Why can’t you ever _____? How come you never _____? How many times do I have to tell you _____? When will you ever learn _____?  I can’t believe you would do such a thing! Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

Would you find this inspiring? Would it motivate you to do better? Or, would you feel stupid, inadequate, insecure -- or angry? Based on the feelings you would have, what would you decide to do? Would you want to withdraw? Would you want to avoid taking risks in an attempt to avoid criticism and lectures? Would you feel hurt and want to get even? Or would you act rebellious in an attempt to cover up your hurt feelings and pretend you didn’t care? Perhaps you would be the extremely rare person who would say, “Thank you so much. I find this very helpful and I have other concerns that I can hardly wait to discuss with you.”
Of course, not all parents use overt criticism. Many try to disguise the criticism through a kind, friendly, logical lecture. Your children are not fooled. A friendly lecture still feels like criticism to them, so they often tune out in self-defense. Later, you might say, “Didn’t you hear a word I said?” Or, “I’ve told you a hundred times _____.”

Who is the dummy? Not your children. If your children aren’t hearing you—even after a hundred times—how many times does it take for you to learn that what you are doing isn’t working?

So why do parents use criticism and lectures with their children?

  1. They don’t know what else to do. 
  2. They truly want to motivate their children to do better. 
  3. They think they are not doing their job as a parent if they don’t do something. Not knowing how to do their job effectively, they react thoughtlessly. They adopt a win/lose strategy without realizing that if they win, that makes their child the loser.
  4. Children push their buttons, and they react.

As you can see from the above list, most criticism and lectures are the result of thoughtless reaction instead of thoughtful action based on knowledge and skills. Most parents have good intentions. They truly want to motivate their children to do better. However, they do not understand that “children do better when they feel better, not when they feel worse.” (Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?)

So, how do we help our children do better? Most parents don’t realize the importance of parenting education. They know they need training for any other job, whether a bricklayer or a brain surgeon. Yet, for the most important job in the world (parenting), some parents think it is a sign of inadequacy to seek education and training. Following are some specific strategies you can use to motivate your children to do better. The first three relate to attitude changes:

  1. Show unconditional love. Oh, you make think you love your child unconditionally, but, does your child get that message? When criticized or lectured to, a child usually believes, “I’m loved only when I live up to your expectations—which I hardly ever do.”

  2. Have faith in your child. There are many ways to demonstrate faith in your child. Some of these methods will be discussed below. The simplest way is to say, “I have faith in you to handle this problem. Let me know if you need any help.”

  3. See mistakes as wonderful opportunities to learn. Most criticisms and lectures are  based on a fear of mistakes. As children, most parents were taught some silly notions about mistakes: that they were bad. Based on this message, most children developed some faulty beliefs: “If I make a mistake, I’m bad.” “I should not take risks, so I can avoid making mistakes.” “If I make a mistake, I should hide it or blame someone else, or find excuses.” The truth about mistakes is that they are an ongoing part of life, and that they provide wonderful opportunities for learning.

  4. Stop telling (lecturing and criticizing) and start asking what and how questions. Too many parents tell their children what happened, what caused it to happen, how they should feel about it, and what they should do about it. Instead, help children explore what happened, what caused it to happen, how they feel about it, what they can learn from it, and how they can use what they learned to avoid the problem in the future or to solve the problem now. The true meaning of education comes from the root word educare, which means “to draw forth.” Too often parents try to stuff in, and then wonder why their lectures seem to go in one ear and out the other. Children truly learn when parents help them figure things out for themselves. It is important to note that it doesn’t work to invite “exploration” at the time of upset. Ask what and how questions only after a cooling off period.

  5. Understand that less is often more. Our children often learn more when we do less talking—criticizing and lecturing. Use any of the following listening methods that are much more effective than criticism or lectures:

    • Use Reflective Listening. Reflective listening means that you reflect what you hear back to your child. It is best to use words that are a little different so you don’t sound like a parent. However, you stick closely to what the child is saying. Child: “I hate Karen.” Parent: “You hate your best friend.” Child: “Yes, she talked about me behind my back.” Parent: “Instead of being your friend, she acted like an enemy.”

    • Use Active Listening. Active listening goes beyond reflective listening. Through active listening you listen for the feelings between the words that your child doesn’t know how to verbalize. This means making guesses that help your child feel deeply understood and validated. Making guesses is not about being “right,” but about getting into the child’s world so well that the child feels understood. If you make a guess that is wrong, that gives you information that you need to try a different path.  Child: “I hate Karen.” Parent: “You sound furious with your best friend.” Child: “Yes, she talked about me behind my back.” Parent: “Sounds like you feel betrayed.” Child, in tears: “How could she do that?” Parent: “You trusted her and she broke that trust.” Child sobs. This is the time to stop active listening and just hold her for awhile.

      For another example, your child might say, “I hate you.” Through reflective listening you might guess, “You are really angry right now because you think I am spending too much time with the baby,” or, “You are really angry because it is so frustrating when you can’t get something your really want.” Active listening is effective only if you use a friendly tone of voice and are truly trying to understand the child’s point of view. It doesn’t work to try disguising criticism or a lecture in the name of reflective listening, such as, “You are just angry because you can’t have your own way all the time.” Active listening often helps a child feel understood. This leads to the child feeling that he/she belongs and is significant. Active listening often leads to a cessation of the misbehavior because a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. The child who feels encouraged (belonging and significance) no longer needs to misbehave.

    • Ask “Curiosity Questions.” When children do something annoying, we are often tempted to use criticism or lectures. When they are angry, we may feel the need to defend ourselves, explain ourselves, or tell them how they should feel differently. When children are upset, we may feel the need to solve their problem or tell (lecture) them how to solve it. This is a subtle form of criticism that says, “You are not capable to handle problems.” You can help your child explore deeper feelings or to work things out by using you as a sounding board by asking, “Can you tell me more about that? Could you give me an example? Is there anything else you want to say about that? Anything else? Anything else? Anything else?” You may ask “anything else” several times before your child can’t think of anything else. This question helps you child dig deeper into their own wisdom and resources. Trust your instincts about where to go from here. It could be that your child feels satisfied to have a sounding board. You could ask, “Would you like my help to brainstorm possibilities?” Avoid the temptation to help if you child doesn’t ask for you help.

    • Listen with Your Lips Closed. Because it is so difficult for many parents to avoid criticizing, lecturing, or talking to much, it may be helpful to listen with your lips closed. You can let your child know you are listening closely by saying, “Hmm,” “Um,”  “Uh-huh.” You may be surprised how much your children will talk more when you talk less.

  6. Hold regular family meetings. Place a blank piece of paper on the refrigerator door to serve as an agenda. Whenever there is a problem, invite your child to write it on the agenda—or you can. Placing a problem on the agenda serves as a cooling-off period. It is not effective to try to solve a problem at the time of conflict when everyone is upset. During the family meeting, the whole family (which could consist of only two people) can brainstorm for solutions. Children are much more likely to follow decisions they have helped create.

  7. Take time for training. Teach your child how to dress him/herself, make his/her bed, pour milk, wash the dishes. Often we expect children to know what we know without taking the time for training. Then don’t do these things for your child. Too often parents dress their toddlers and preschoolers in the name of expediency, or so they will look good for the neighbors. This is the kind of subtle criticism that says, “It is more important to do things quickly and to look good for the neighbors than to help you feel capable.” Get up ten minutes earlier so your child has more time. 

  8. Appreciate the effort. Stop looking for perfection. So what if your child doesn’t make a bed as well as you do. Do not remake the bed. This is a subtle form of criticism that shouts the message, “You can’t do anything right.” Instead, say, “I appreciate it that you took the time to make your bed.” Appreciation inspires improvement. Criticism does not.

  9. Get your children involved in helping you create routines. When you have a morning routine chart, for example, the routine chart becomes the boss. Instead of lecturing and criticizing, you can ask your child, “What is next on our routine chart?” Children feel motivated when they are respectfully involved in the process of what needs to be done, instead of passive objects to your controlling methods.

  10. Use kind and firm distraction. If your child is about to hit another child on the head with his/her sand shovel, quickly move in, pick your child up and say, “Shovels are for digging, not for hitting.” Children under three do not understand abstract concepts such as, “Bad boy/girl. You should never hit anyone. That hurts. Would you like me to hit you and show you how it feels?” In the former action, you have demonstrated a loving way to solve a problem. In the latter, you have modeled negative ways to solve a problem. Children learn more from actions than from words. Young children need close supervision.

Criticism and lectures are not effective motivators to help your children learn important skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Now that you know that—and what to do instead—it still can be difficult to break the habit of criticism and lectures. However, when you understand the long-range results, it is worth the effort.


Posted on February 1, 2010 by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. [Guest Article]

Jane is the author and co-author of 18 books including the Positive Discipline Series and Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. However, her real credibility comes from being the mother of 7 children and grandmother of 20 grandchildren. She is a popular keynote speaker and workshop presenter for parents and classroom teachers. Website.

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Permalink   Comments (4)   Send to a Friend

Tags: *Parent Engagement at Home , Character Development, Communicating, Learning environment, Parents as teachers, Positive Discipline

Posted March 1, 2012 by sonalidey
thanks for everything. 

Posted March 1, 2012 by sonalidey
I am impressed after reading this article. 

Posted March 1, 2012 by sonalidey
really impressed by this article. 

Posted March 1, 2012 by sonalidey
I am impressed by reading these
articles, so i can help myself
& my family so my child becomes
the best of all children in my


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