How many times do I have to tell you?
Life was simpler when he was a baby. He was so happy to make you smile, never used to tune you out, and hadn’t learned his fave word: NO. Now that he’s older, he’s still your sweet little boy some of the time, but lately he’s getting more and more… exhausting. And you’re getting more and more PO’d.
Stop wasting your breath.
Did you know that even babies listen, understand, and cooperate if we teach them how? It’s truly amazing when I ask our chubby babe to give that Lego head back to her brother/take the grass out of her mouth/back away from the garbage bin AND SHE ACTUALLY DOES! People think it’s a party-trick, and yup, sometimes it is. But it’s also a way of life. Her older brother dawdles far. too. long. when he eats, and her oldest brother CANNOT stay seated at the table. So we’ve been finessing how to not be ignored for, uh, seven years. Here’s what we’ve figured out:
- Speak calmly. It’s okay to be serious, and even get a little stern, but yelling’s not a good idea. Ditto for losing it.
- Explain what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and what’ll happen if he continues. But use simple words, short sentences, and don’t repeat yourself. We like the ‘One strike, you’re out,’ rule, as in “We don’t throw food on the floor. It makes a mess and wastes food. I’ll give you one more piece of apple but if you throw this one then lunch is over.”
- Don’t rely on words alone. Asking your toddler to put the toys away while demonstrating makes it a lot easier for her to understand. Adding music, as in “Clean-up, clean-up, everybody, everywhere,” also amps up any chore’s fun factor.
- Consequence away. The easiest is simply removing a distraction that’s preventing him from getting down to bizness (for us at mealtime that’d be taking away one of the thousand Lego Jedis/Sith Lords/Superheroes/city workers on the table) or moving him away from a problematic situation (taking the baby out of her high-chair when she’s trying to turn lunch into a food-fight, or asking her older brother if he needs to go jumping jack his sillies out to calm those ants in his pants).
- Praise, praise, praise when he’s being a super-listening superstar. Genuinely.
You can also age-tweak as he grows and becomes more independent if you:
- Expand your non-verbal cue repertoire. Preschool teachers everywhere flick lights on and off when it’s tidy-up time, use body-language with rhymes like “Hands on top, that means stop,” or hand-clap a call and response to command attention. It sure beats amping up your ‘SHHHH’ volume. We also use our own sign language, like a thumbs-up if our biker can keep on truckin’ down the sidewalk or a stop sign hand if we want him to… stop. It’s all good as long as it’s not disrespectful – no talking to the hand or accusatory pointer fingers please peeps.
- Give choices whenever you’re okay with either outcome. Asking if he’s ready to come to the table for lunch or wants to play for five more minutes lets him know you care how he feels and don’t always have to be the boss. Also gives you the good old “Hmmm, so I guess next time I won’t let you choose,” if he kicks up a fuss when time’s up.
- Adapt those consequences for his age and abilities. We ask our oldest if he’s finished his meal as a warning that standing up again means his dinner’s over. The key here is follow-through, so don’t lie (he’ll see right through you when neither monsters nor police show up) and don’t say anything you won’t enforce. Telling him you’re counting to three and then leaving doesn’t mean anything if you keep on counting to three and a half, four, four and a quarter… and then remain at the park.
- Don’t interact with his distracting dialogue. He can talk for HOURS about anything and nothing, and if you start responding he gets to delay until you forget, give up, or run out of time. Instead, set your auto-statement to a ‘When’ response and then zip it. As in “I’ll be happy to answer you when you’ve had another bite/brushed your teeth/gone to the bathroom,” or a more general “I’d love to listen to you when I see you’re listening to me.”
- Combine the One Strike rule with some more choices and a lesson in empathy. So when he lunges for the ride-on that just caught his baby sister’s attention, respond with “How do you feel when someone grabs a toy you’re playing with?” If you get nothing back, follow up with “Can you give it back to your sister or do I need to do it for you?” If he starts stalling, you can use one of those handy ‘When’ statements or, if the baby’s really freaking out, simply say “Doesn’t look like you’re paying attention, so I’ll do it this time.” Follow through… and get ready for the fallout.
- Keep an open dialogue. Read relevant books (we’re fans of Howard B. Wigglebottom – anyone else have a child who likes ninjas?) and brainstorm solutions together. Using their ideas about what’ll improve a situation helps make it stick, and seeing you listen is a great way to role model cooperation – nothing like talking the talk!
The more you remind/nag/yell, the more they get used to the same old same old, the more they ignore/disobey, the more frustrated you become. It’s easier to communicate effectively if you start early, but it’s never too late to teach anyone how to listen. I FINALLY got the message across about that dishwashing fairy… fingers crossed.
Email us if enforcing better listening is leading to more tantrums and only getting worse… we can help!