Talking to kids about their listening skills - and improving yours

Parents are all too quick to offer advice when children come to us with a problem. This leads to arguments because children feel that they are not being heard

Mother scolding her daughter. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

Family life would run so much more smoothly if only we could all learn to listen to one another more effectively. Unfortunately, there are four very different sets of ears in my house. I like to think mine are always open, but I must confess that my memory is rather wilful these days. I cannot speak for my husband, who may or may not be listening as he nods along to something, deep in thought elsewhere.

Then, there are the smallest pairs: the 9-year-old child, who has been tested for dyslexia, has an excellent auditory memory, cultivated no doubt by the challenges she sometimes faces with the written word. This is great, but I’d really like her advanced listening skills to make the journey from her classroom to our home. Meanwhile, the youngest seems to have selective hearing, always hoping that what she wants is going to happen. Cue tears, shouting and disappointment. If you’d like to reduce the drama and increase the comprehension, here’s a starting point.

Mummy, are you listening?

Last Saturday my eldest daughter spent an entire day wailing and crying. When we all sat down to our evening meal and I asked for the hundredth time why we’d had such a torturous day, my youngest daughter chipped in: “Because you weren’t listening, mummy. She told you what she wanted to do, again and again, and because you wouldn’t listen, she started crying.”

The analysis was so matter of fact that it gave me pause. My daughter was right. Her sister had wanted the chance to play her favourite game and spent hours doing what everyone else wanted in the hope of a payback that never came. I'd stopped talking to her when the crying started. If I'd damped down my sense of frustration, stopped and given her request the 20 minutes it needed, I could have saved her (and the whole family) a lot of heartache.  

Stop talking

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, ­authors of the classic parenting manual How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, agree that listening is a skill parents need to master. They say parents are all too quick to jump in and offer advice when our children come to us with a problem. This in turn leads to arguments because children feel that they are not being listened to and their feelings are being ignored. Try empathising and offering encouragement as your child tells you what's happened, instead of chipping in, and you'll give him or her the chance to explore what's happened, Faber and Mazlish say. It's a strategy that works on young children and teens, so start practising it.

Have realistic expectations

Just like any other skill, listening requires practice if you are to improve, and its foundations are laid in a child's formative years through listening to stories and learning nursery rhymes with parents or carers. By the time children reach the classroom, a 6-year-old is able to give their undivided attention for about five minutes, while older primary school children have an attention span of up to 10 minutes. A study in the United States on how easily primary school children are distracted, published in the peer-reviewed journal Learning and Instruction in April 2016, showed that 25 per cent of students in a class are not focused on their learning at any one time, highlighting how easy it is for kids' minds to stray. If you're barking complex instructions at a tired child over background noise, don't be surprised if they're not listening.

Have you heard me?

The remedy to an environment ringing with distraction is to create a direct connection: make sure your listener is looking at you when you’re speaking, keep any instructions simple with a maximum of two parts (please do x, then do y), and ask them to repeat what you have said to make sure that it has entered their consciousness.

Be constructive, not angry 

Every family's morning starts with the battle to get to school on time. I used to yell instructions, looking at my watch, as my children ran around in circles, and we'd all collapse in the car half-exhausted by the effort, before the journey to school had even begun. It was a terrible way for everyone to start the day. Something had to give, and that something was me. These days my children only have to get up, have breakfast and get dressed, because I'm the one organising all the bits and pieces that used to cause the delay. Some mornings, I even tie their shoelaces, not because they're lazy and I'm too permissive, but because I'd rather we all have the energy to talk and listen to each other on the way to school than sit fuming in silence.


Read more: