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Getting Kids to Listen: 4 Easy Steps

QUESTION: I am the mother of three children, ages two through nine years. I have great kids, but they often do not listen to what I tell them to do. Things can get so chaotic that it drives me crazy. What can a mother do?

ANSWER: Your dilemma is a common one in this day and age. Our parents' generation was very adult centered. Children were to be seen and not heard. The pendulum has swung, but it need not go overboard. It is possible to empower your children and still retain parental authority.

You have done a good job of listening to your children; Now it is time for them to also listen to you. However, do not mistake establishing your authority to mean you are authoritarian. You have clearly established a democratic atmosphere that has given your children a voice in the family. But your leadership is required. The following guidelines for discipline will help you clarify who is in charge in your family.

  1. Communicate your expectations clearly.

    Pitfall: Some parents express what they want their child do by including a child's feelings as a part of the communication. For example: "Let's get in the car. I know you want to go to grandma's, don't you?"

    Say, instead: "I want you to get in your car seat now. We are going to grandma's house."

  2. Accept your child's feelings, but reinforce your expectations.

    Pitfall: Expecting your child to show enthusiasm or contentment about doing what is required.

    Instead, be willing to reflect your child's negative feelings about doing what you require, but do not negate what you expect. For example: "Grandma is waiting for us. You must get in your car seat. I know you are sad about having to leave your friends right now. You will be able to play again another day."

  3. Communicate and deliver consequences.

    Pitfalls: Many parents resort to yelling, instead of communicating and delivering consequences in a matter-of-fact tone. Or they do not follow through on consequences they communicate because they threaten inappropriately in the heat of anger.

    Instead, accept complaints, but clarify what will happen if they do not listen. For example: "If you do not get in your car seat by the count of three, I will put you in myself." Or, for an older child, "If you do not do your homework, you will not be able to watch your TV program." Be sure you make appropriate consequences that you are willing to deliver. Then, follow through! (Note: Yelling is not a viable consequence, and only leads to escalation!)

    Expect to follow through on your consequences BEFORE your children will listen. It will take one, two or three times for your child to know that you mean what you say, especially if you have been resorting to whining or complaining instead of being authoritative (which we all do at one time or another).

  4. Separate your child's behavior from their self-esteem. Label a behavior "bad," but not your child's motives or character.

    Pitfall: To confuse behavior with character labels. For example: "No hitting! Only bad boys hit."

    Instead, "Hitting is a bad thing to do to others. You must learn to use your words." Or to an older child when addressing a bad mistake. "You are not a thief. Why in the world did you steal that lipstick?" Separating behavior from action allows children to learn from their mistakes, rather than be condemned by them.

It is our job as parents to guide our children. We must be willing to accept anger and other negative feelings when we set appropriate limits. As long as your expectations are reasonable for your child's age, you may successfully adopt the role of benevolent dictator when necessary.

As parents you have your children's best interests at heart. You have raised them to give you their input. Pat yourself on the back. They will feel empowered to express themselves and be able to influence the direction of their destiny in their adult lives.

But do not stop short of taking charge. Your calm leadership is necessary to create a stable environment. Children and parents flourish in an atmosphere that promotes order over chaos.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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