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Are you a young par­ent or new­ly found your­self in charge of a child or worse yet a hand­ful of chil­dren (babysit­ting or tutor­ing), and you can’t seem to get the younglings to lis­ten to you? They seem com­plete­ly unman­age­able! Some­times, it feels as if they are unable to under­stand what lan­guage you are speak­ing to them. Learn­ing to com­mu­ni­cate prop­er­ly is a stage that all chil­dren have to go through. Some may have an eas­i­er time than oth­ers under­stand­ing what is expect­ed of them, oth­ers… not so much. This arti­cle is for the “not so much” cohort of chil­dren.  

Our top tips for improving the way we talk to kids:

1- Use your child’s name (or nickname)

Just like you turn your head when­ev­er you hear your name, so does your child. It’s music to their ears. They are no dif­fer­ent. By say­ing their name before ask­ing them to do any­thing at all, you are grab­bing their atten­tion and thus more like­ly to lis­ten to what you have to say. It’s impor­tant to keep call­ing their name until you have their atten­tion or eye con­tact; oth­er­wise, you might be talk­ing to your­self!

2- Positive language

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how to talk so kids will listen l kids listen l talking to children l how to make kids listen l parents talking to children

We often find our­selves using this sort of lan­guage around a mis­be­hav­ing child: “Don’t drop that,” “You are not lis­ten­ing to me,” and “No, you can’t do that.” If you were a child being told “No” con­stant­ly, you’d also feel wronged. Instead, try to say what you would like for your child to do. It may take a lit­tle bit of effort at first, but it is worth the effort over time. You should also work hard on elim­i­nat­ing tox­ic lan­guages such as ridicule, name-call­ing, or sham­ing. Here are a few exam­ples, “You are not a three year old any­more!” “You are very mean, right now,” and “You are embar­rass­ing me.” That leads to hurt­ing the self-esteem of the child in the long run. Some­times, chil­dren will cut off com­mu­ni­ca­tion with those that hurt them in this man­ner, includ­ing fam­i­ly. Do not for­get chil­dren are sim­ply small indi­vid­u­als.

3- Get down to their level

Try to make a con­nec­tion with your child with the help of eye con­tact. You can get down to their lev­el or have them sit at the table with you. This will ingrain good man­ners in their behav­iour, and it shows them what to do and how to resolve con­flict. This can be use­ful to them as a life skill. To give your­self and your child an even “play­ing” ground, it aids the com­mu­ni­ca­tion between you two.

4- Keep the volume level down

Only use the vol­ume of your voice in inap­pro­pri­ate sit­u­a­tions. If you find your­self in a major­i­ty of sit­u­a­tions that you have to yell at your child, the child will even­tu­al­ly stop lis­ten­ing at all. If the high­er vol­ume of your voice is kept only for the most crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, they will always react and notice, just because it does not hap­pen all the time. This also applies to yell from anoth­er room, and it is bound to fall on deaf ears; even­tu­al­ly, it is just a mat­ter of time.

5- Give them a choice!

Canva - Mom and Daughter Talking, Laughing Sitting on Bench in the Park, Child with School Bag Reading Notebook

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Some­times, you need to cre­ate room for coop­er­a­tion instead of sub­or­di­na­tion. It is far eas­i­er for chil­dren to under­stand why they need to do some­thing (and how they ben­e­fit from it) rather than the leg­endary “Because I said so.” Chil­dren might not under­stand every­thing and need our guid­ance, but they are still capa­ble of mak­ing choic­es, and they should be taught to choose. You can offer them a choice when it comes to which veg­eta­bles they will eat that meal “Would you like car­rots or toma­toes?”, this will get healthy nutri­tion in their bel­lies but also allow them to stay in con­trol. Anoth­er like­ly sce­nario that you could find your­self in; say you have to go to the park, and your child is refus­ing to get dressed in what you want them to wear or just being fussy over­all. A way to try to rem­e­dy the sit­u­a­tion would be to grab their atten­tion and say some­thing sim­i­lar: “When you get dressed, you can go out­side and play with your sis­ter.” or “Would you like to wear the red coat or the green coat, would you like to put your boots or your sneak­ers on?”.

6- Keep your instructions simple

Depend­ing on your child’s age, too many direc­tions at once could be over­whelm­ing to them or (worse) they could for­get about what you asked them to do. This is a nor­mal pat­tern even in adults; this is why so many of us keep post-it notes and plan­ners. There is only so much you can remem­ber at once. Keep your ver­bal direc­tions to one to three direc­tions at best; oth­er­wise, you will find your­self nag­ging and repeat­ing your­self.

7- Do not nag excessively

Instead of nag­ging or repeat­ing the same unsuc­cess­ful tech­niques, try a reward sys­tem. Some­times, chil­dren just need to be told that you are proud of them for doing X, Y, and Z through­out the week. Give your chil­dren a good reward sys­tem that works for them (and for you) that will install in them a rou­tine and good behav­iour such as a chore chart for every day of the week.

8- Be kind but be firm, you are the parent

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how to talk so kids will listen l kids listen l talking to children l how to make kids listen l parents talking to children

When you have made your deci­sion about any­thing at all, it is impor­tant that you stick to it. If you have ground­ed your child for the day, then they must remain ground­ed until the day is over. It is also cru­cial that you, your part­ner (and any­one else involved in the care­tak­ing of the child) will stay unit­ed in the deci­sion. No sweets after 5? No one should give the child sweets after five, and the child will even­tu­al­ly learn not to ask for them to start with as they are aware of the firm rule. Your child will not enjoy your rul­ing at the time, but at least they will under­stand that it is not bar­gain­able. A wishy-washy tone will get you in trou­ble as your child will always try to break your deci­sion or push your bound­aries. Though, this may reap­pear in their teens in the form of rebel­lion to take on an author­i­ty fig­ure.

9- Give notice

Just like you give notice to your employ­er before request­ing time off or arriv­ing late, so should you be giv­ing notice to your child. If you are about to leave for gro­cery shop­ping and your child is com­ing with you, you should give them notice: “Daniel­la, put away your toys, we are leav­ing soon.” or “James, we will be going to the gro­cery store to buy food. Grab your coat and put on your shoes.” should be enough to grab their atten­tion, give them direc­tion, and notice all at once.

10- Do not speak over your child

Do not inter­rupt or scold your child while they are talk­ing to you one-on-one. They are hav­ing a moment of trust with you and shar­ing some­thing that to them, at that moment, is impor­tant. If you were to be inter­rupt­ed, you would have only three ways to react: raise your voice, say that you are being inter­rupt­ed (and hope that the oth­er par­ty apol­o­gizes) or go qui­et. Kids react in sim­i­lar ways. They often lose inter­est in shar­ing their feel­ings with you (or oth­er adults) if you talk over them or, worse, scold them for shar­ing. It is impor­tant to teach lessons, but they have to be at appro­pri­ate times. Some­times, a les­son dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion can wait three min­utes.

11- Help your child deal with their feelings

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how to talk so kids will listen l kids listen l talking to children l how to make kids listen l parents talking to children

As par­ents, we can tell when our chil­dren are hav­ing a bad day (and they can tell when we have one, too). By help­ing and teach­ing your child to deal with their feel­ings, you are teach­ing them a use­ful life skill and are engag­ing in open com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them. This estab­lish­es trust. You can ask open-end­ed ques­tions such as “How does that make you feel?” “Why are you upset right now?” “Do you want to talk about it now or lat­er?” to get your child to be more prone to want to talk to you (and keep doing it). When your child does open up about their feel­ings (as sil­ly as they may be to us some­times), it’s cru­cial that you lis­ten to them as you would to an adult (as men­tioned in the pre­vi­ous point) and offer to do an activ­i­ty to get their mind off it after­ward, such as colour­ing, cud­dling, or danc­ing.

12- Focus on what your child can do

Some­times, par­ents get ahead of them­selves. They want to believe that their chil­dren are ful­ly capa­ble of doing a pletho­ra of things, but some­times that is just wish­ful think­ing. It’s impor­tant to set age-appro­pri­ate tasks, activ­i­ties, and rea­son­ing for your child. If you know that they are capa­ble of one thing and what you are ask­ing them is a big leap, you might have to sit down and teach them how to do said thing; oth­er­wise, you’ll always get a puz­zled look from your child before they ask for help them­selves. Amazon Baby registry

Last but not least

Your chil­dren are small but incred­i­bly com­plex indi­vid­u­als. The only dif­fer­ence between them and you is age expe­ri­ence. Treat them with respect and kind­ness, and your child will rec­i­p­ro­cate your good man­ners and behav­iour back to you. You are their first role mod­el, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
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