“Why won’t my child listen?” asks every parent in the history of parents, at least at some point or another.
My five-year-old and I were engaged in a never-ending game of tug of war. That sweet little boy that I used to rock in my arms was now using his to push me away and yell, “No!”
My deep dive mission to fix his behavior and make him listen became tunnel vision. I had good goals, but I was getting nowhere. I realized that maybe my lens was off. Everything I was trying to control was focused on how my child showed up to the world … his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As much as I sometimes really want to, I don’t govern those. I guide them. And there is a difference.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have boundaries. We do, and they are firm, concrete, and consistent.
This doesn’t mean there are never consequences. There are, of the natural type.
Yet, there is also connection. And I was missing this part.
When We Command And Demand
As parents, we sometimes find ourselves on autopilot, commanding and demanding all day. I was one of those parents.
Get ready for school.
Pick up your toys.
Brush your teeth.
Leave your brother alone.
And here’s the really interesting thing. When I became intentional and aware of my words, I realized I also commanded and demanded things meant for connection.
Come look at this butterfly.
Sit down and we will read a book.
Grab your superheroes and we will play.
The commands and demands were running my parenting show. That was until I found a new way.
Moving Past Commands And Demands
When we see our children as equals, we are less likely to 1) attempt to control them and the situation and 2) argue our rightness. We become more likely to see our children as their own human, with their own agendas, thoughts, and feelings. Giving children more agency leads to fewer power struggles and meltdowns, and more win-win scenarios.
Here are 5 tools that I use:
Sometimes our kids will surprise us, but we need to give them the space to do so. One day, my son and I were preparing to leave. I asked him to put his bike away because it was blocking the car (it wouldn’t be the first time I accidentally ran over a bike that was parked behind our family’s vehicle). A few minutes later, my son hopped on the bike and did a loop. A command almost spilled past my lips (I wanted him to put it away right now!), but I instead paused with curiosity. What would he do? He finished his loop and parked it at his “bike stop.” He already knew what to do, and when given the opportunity, he did - not because I forced it, but because he chose it.
2. Ask Questions
When we command and demand, we rob our children the experience of exercising their higher-level brain muscles. Yet, when we ask questions, this part of the brain is invited to “wake up” in order to problem-solve, sequence, and get the task done. So …
- “Pick up your toys.” becomes, “Do you want to pick up your toys before or after you brush your teeth?”
- “Put your coat away.” becomes, “Where does your coat go?”
- “Get ready for school.” becomes, “I see you got dressed and brushed your teeth. What comes next?”
3. Give Information
Unlike commanding and demanding, when we give our children information, their brain creates circuits that equip them for future situations. So …
- “Throw away your trash.” becomes, “Trash goes in the trash can.”
- “Put your clean clothes in the drawer.” becomes, “When we put our clothes away, we can find them when we want to wear them.”
- “Brush your teeth.” becomes, “Brushing your teeth keeps your teeth healthy.”
4. Set A Boundary
One of my favorite ways to set a boundary is by telling my boys what I am willing or unwilling to do. This feels empowering because, instead of attempting to control my children or make them listen, I focus on my sovereignty source.
So, instead of nagging about picking up toys, brushing teeth, doing homework, or going to bed, I may say:
- I am unwilling to leave for grandma's until the toys are picked up.
- I am willing to read another bedtime book after we brush teeth.
- I am unwilling to give more screen time until homework is done.
- I am willing to lay with you while you close your eyes.
5. Connect Before You Redirect
Research shows that when we feel seen and heard, we are more open to listening. Offering three connection statements for every one request is a great way to redirect your child while honoring their experience.
One day, my child was playing on his tablet. Prior experience told me that the transition from tablet to dinner would lead to a meltdown. So, instead of telling him that he was all done, I decided to start with connection.
- First, I made an observation. “I see you playing this new game.”
- Then, I gave a compliment. “You seem to be having fun. You’re so focused.”
- Lastly, I asked a question. “What do you like about this game?”
This time, I even asked if I could join him in his world for a moment. He showed me how to play and I gave it a go. And then, when it was time to redirect him off of the tablet so we could sit at the table for dinner, my son did so - both of us walking away chatting about our shared experience.
There will be times that we will make commands as parents. I’m pretty sure we are hardwired for it. But when we become aware of how we interact with our children and give more grace and opportunity to learn and practice new skills, our children become more invested in participating with us (as opposed to pushing against us). It becomes less about dominating our children and getting them to comply and more about learning who they are and helping them thrive.