Encouraging Listening Skills

Mar 13, 2024


Here is an important question for you…think about it for a minute before you read the rest of the blog:


Do you want your child to immediately listen to and obey you (and other authority figures) every single time they are asked to do something?


The instant answer for most parents (including Dr. Jordana and I early in our parenthood journey), is “YES, of course!” However, I want to challenge you to think about this in a slightly different way…


Do you *actually* want your child to instantly listen and comply to you, or do you want them to know how to differentiate between when they need to:


  1. Instantly listen to you, because they are in a dangerous situation (for example, they are running in the street and a car is coming)


  1. Actually say “no” to an authority figure (if someone is trying to take advantage of them)




  1. Listen and comply to you, but, in non-emergency situations. This means that they may have some flexibility in when and how they comply.



This way of thinking about your child’s listening skills and compliance is much different than how many current parents were raised. Many of us in our 20s-40s were raised with a “I say ‘jump’ you say ‘how high’ mindset.” Although that mindset caused us to be compliant and obedient, it also causes problems. Children who are raised in this authoritarian-style home often grow up to be highly anxious, as their bodies have a hard time differentiating between a true emergency (“my body is in danger”) and a non-emergency (“the kitchen is a mess”). This style of parenting is also linked to children (and future adults) who struggle to be assertive and who know how to stand up to authority figures when needed.


Thus, it is important for our kids to know how to differentiate between when they need to instantly comply (emergency situation), when they need to actually say “no,” and when they should comply (non-emergency situation). This helps them to:


  • Listen and respond quicker in emergency situations
  • Think critically about what is important and what is not important
  • Assertively stand up for themselves when needed
  • Develop internal motivation for doing what needs to be done (e.g., do what they need to do just because they need to, not because they fear punishment).
  • Develop critical executive functioning skills needed for task completion (e.g., the ability to self-start and time management).


So, how do you develop this in your kids? And how do you get your kids to listen, when it matters? Let’s talk about it!


  1. Talk to your kids about body autonomy and when to say “no.” We recommend having this talk at least 3-4 times a year. We’ve written a free guide on this topic. Check it out here
  2. Control your voice. Your voice is the biggest indicator of if a situation is an emergency or non-emergency. This means that you need to save your “emergency voice” for true emergency situations. Your child not fully wiping off the kitchen counter, like they said they did, is not an emergency (despite it being super frustrating!).
  3. Make sure you have your child’s attention before giving them instructions. If they don’t hear or process it, they certainly aren’t going to do it! The following are generally important:
    1. Be in the same room as your child. Yelling across the house is rarely effective.
    2. Get on your child’s level. Squat down if they are little or sit next to them. Being on the same physical plane automatically boosts their attention.
    3. Make sure you have their attention. You may say “Look at me for a second.” Or, “Hey bud, can you pause that?”
    4. Only give them one step at a time. You can gradually add steps as your child’s listening skills increase.
    5. Encourage them to repeat the instructions back to you. This way, you can 100% know if they fully understand what they are supposed to do.
  4. Allow some autonomy and choice in when they comply. Giving your child some space and wiggle room in which to comply, for some tasks, helps boost their independence and executive functioning skills. Now, can you do this every time? No. Sometimes they just must put on their shoes and get in the car. Can you do this for every child at every stage? Again, no. Some kids are at a level of listening where they need to be given one task, and monitored until they complete it. But the goal is for them to eventually have some independence in completing tasks. This is what autonomy and choice in complying may sound like: 
    1.  “How many minutes are left in the show? Okay, when that show is over, I need you to take out the trash.”
    2.  “You still have math homework to do tonight, would you like to do it before or after you take a play break?”
    3.  “You need to tidy up your room today and wipe down the bathroom counters. When you do it is total up to you, but you can’t have screens until it is done.”



Do you want more tips and tricks for getting your child to listen? We have an hour-long Deep Dive talk on it! For $13, you can get access to this talk, the entirety of our Parenting 101 course ($129 value), our Tantrums course ($10 value), over a dozen other topical Deep Dive talks, plus downloadable parenting guides! Check out our membership here


We hope you join us!


Dr. Erin Avirett

Want more like this? Transform your home with our Parenting 101 Course, and weekly tips from two Child Psychologists. 

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