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A child who won’t listen — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011A child who won’t listen — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,
I was a nanny for two years, so you’d think I’d know how to manage my own child. Not so. I have an 18-month-old who really doesn’t talk yet, so I don’t expect him to do what I ask, but the 3-and-a-half year-old should listen to me. I heard this referred to in a child development class as “mother deaf.” This is really frustrating, especially when I take them places. It’s very hard to get through the day without her cooperation.

Unheard Mom

Don’t miss last week’s column How to work with a shy child

Dear Mom,

Relationship experts advise us that the best communication processes are part of a mutually respectful and cooperative relationship. Communication is a two-way street. Cooperation is, too. A message must be both given and received in order for it to be effective. That’s where your relationship comes in. Rather than attacking the problem from how hard it is to get through your day, try to approach things from the integration of both your needs and your daughter’s.

Here are some tips for gaining your child’s attention and cooperation:

  1. Enter Her Space. If she’s pretending an empty box is her rocket ship, use your Mission Control voice to address her through her radio. “Mission Control to Astronaut Stella. What do you see out of the spaceship window at this time?” Segue the dialog to whatever it is that requires her cooperation – meeting you in the space station galley for lunch, changing into her Extravehicular Mobility Unit (she’d know it as her EMU) for a mission in the pod (your car), or thank her for completing another successful assignment and guide her through landing the ship and parking it in storage until the next mission. Good parenting can take advantage of young children’s ability to use their imaginations. It’s such an easy means of entry into their thought process. By the way, you can encourage good parenting in the future if you jump in now and then when she’s playing house. You could be the friendly neighbor who drops by to ask her how her baby is doing. Be sure to compliment her obviously excellent parenting.
  2. Big Picture Timing. In a twenty-four hour period your daughter will need food, exercise, rest, and of course, interesting activities to engage her very active mind. Plot out her day to work around these essential needs and her overall mood is much more likely to be pleasant. Your day includes such parenting responsibilities as making sure your children have nutritious foods at appropriate intervals, providing space and time for large motor activity – running around, climbing, dancing, etc., and honoring appropriate naptimes and bedtime.. If you follow a good schedule for her day, she is much more likely to be cooperative through it. In every day, there are things you must do so that your children’s needs are met. It helps if your own needs have been met first. Step back and look at your own Needs Assessment and Time Management. When you can adequately take care of your own physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual needs, all the needs of children are much easier to deal with.
  3. Say What You Mean. The best way to be heard is to follow your words with action. “We’re leaving in five minutes” means you are leaving in five minutes. By the same token, never threaten what you have no intention of carrying out. Get confirmation from an alternate caregiver before you warn, “I’m leaving without you if you’re not at the door with your shoes on in five minutes.” Remember the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf? After a few false alarms, no one pays attention. If you don’t want to undermine your own authority, before you make a request of your child, think it through. You are the grown-up, which means you have ultimate responsibility – and control – over what happens. If you don’t really mean it, don’t bother to say it.
  4. It’s the Relationship. Does your daughter know that you are on her side? Is the goal of cleaning her room to do what you say, or that she’ll be better able to find her toys and clothes? Is the goal of following your directions when you go to the petting zoo to avoid the punishment of being taken home early, or that you will help her to safely touch lots of nice animals? Communicate with language that imparts a clear picture of how your request fits in with your daughter’s needs. And she will soon notice that things turn out better for her when she pays attention to you. A child is more likely to listen to and cooperate with an adult if she knows the adult has her best interests at heart. Research bears out that when parents are available, responsive, and helpful they have fewer battles with their children.

The classic volume on communicating with children: How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk  by Faber and Mazlish is still in reprint. Several generations have benefitted from the wisdom therein.

Dr. Debbie


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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