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Why Children Don’t Listen
How to Motivate and Inspire without Criticism
So why do parents use criticism and lectures with their children?
- They don’t know what else to do. Parents often feel stupid, inadequate, and insecure, and try to cover up these feelings (even from themselves) by reacting thoughtlessly.
- They truly want to motivate their children to do better. However, they haven’t thought about the long-range results of their methods, so they react thoughtlessly.
- They think they are not doing their job as a parent if they don’t do something. Not knowing how to do their job effectively, they react thoughtlessly. They adopt a win/lose strategy without realizing that if they win, that makes their child the loser.
- Children push their buttons, and they react thoughtlessly.
The first three relate to attitude changes parents can make:
- Show unconditional love. Oh, you make think you love your child unconditionally, but, does your child get that message? When criticized or lectured to, a child usually believes, “I’m loved only when I live up to your expectations—which I hardly ever do.”
- Have faith in your child. There are many ways to demonstrate faith in your child. Some of these methods will be discussed below. The simplest way is to say, “I have faith in you to handle this problem. Let me know if you need any help.”
- See mistakes as wonderful opportunities to learn. Most criticism and lectures are based on a fear of mistakes. As children, most parents were taught some silly notions about mistakes: that they were bad. Based on this message, most children developed some faulty beliefs: “If I make a mistake, I’m bad.” “I should not take risks, so I can avoid making mistakes.” “If I make a mistake, I should hide it or blame someone else, or find excuses.” The truth about mistakes is that they are an ongoing part of life, and that they provide wonderful opportunities for learning.
- Stop telling (lecturing and criticizing) and start asking what and how questions. Too many parents tell their children what happened, what caused it to happen, how they should feel about it, and what they should do about it. Instead, help children explore what happened, what caused it to happen, how they feel about it, what they can learn from it, and how they can use what they learned to avoid the problem in the future or to solve the problem now. The true meaning of education comes from the root word educare, which means “to draw forth.” Too often parents try to stuff in, and then wonder why their lectures seem to go in one ear and out the other. Children truly learn when parents help them figure things out for themselves. It is important to note that it doesn’t work to invite “exploration” at the time of upset. Ask what and how questions only after a cooling off period.
- Understand that less is often more. Our children often learn more when we do less talking—criticizing and lecturing.
Use any of the following listening methods that are much more effective than criticism or lectures:
- Use Reflective Listening. Reflective listening means that you reflect what you hear back to your child. It is best to use words that are a little different so you don’t sound like a parent. However, you stick closely to what the child is saying. Child: “I hate Karen.” Parent: “You hate your best friend.” Child: “Yes, she talked about me behind my back.” Parent: “Instead of being your friend, she acted like an enemy.”
- Use Active Listening. Active listening goes beyond reflective listening. Through active listening you listen for the feelings between the words that your child doesn’t know how to verbalize. This means making guesses that help your child feel deeply understood and validated. Making guesses is not about being “right,” but about getting into the child’s world so well that the child feels understood. If you make a guess that is wrong, that gives you information that you need to try a different path. Child: “I hate Karen.” Parent: “You sound furious with your best friend.” Child: “Yes, she talked about me behind my back.” Parent: “Sounds like you feel betrayed.” Child, in tears: “How could she do that?” Parent: “You trusted her and she broke that trust.” Child sobs. This is the time to stop active listening and just hold her for awhile.
- For another example, your child might say, “I hate you.” Through reflective listening you might guess, “You are really angry right now because you think I am spending too much time with the baby,” or, “You are really angry because it is so frustrating when you can’t get something your really want.” Active listening is effective only if you use a friendly tone of voice and are truly trying to understand the child’s point of view. It doesn’t work to try disguising criticism or a lecture in the name of reflective listening, such as, “You are just angry because you can’t have your own way all the time.” Active listening often helps a child feel understood. This leads to the child feeling that he/she belongs and is significant. Active listening often leads to a cessation of the misbehavior because a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. The child who feels encouraged (belonging and significance) no longer needs to misbehave.
- Ask “Curiosity Questions.” When children do something annoying, we are often tempted to use criticism or lectures. When they are angry, we may feel the need to defend ourselves, explain ourselves, or tell them how they should feel differently. When children are upset, we may feel the need to solve their problem or tell (lecture) them how to solve it. This is a subtle form of criticism that says, “You are not capable to handle problems.” You can help your child explore deeper feelings or to work things out by using you as a sounding board by asking, “Can you tell me more about that? Could you give me an example? Is there anything else you want to say about that? Anything else? Anything else? Anything else?” You may ask “anything else” several times before your child can’t think of anything else. This question helps you child dig deeper into their own wisdom and resources. Trust your instincts about where to go from here. It could be that your child feels satisfied to have a sounding board. You could ask, “Would you like my help to brainstorm possibilities?” Avoid the temptation to help if you child doesn’t ask for you help.
- Listen with Your Lips Closed. Because it is so difficult for many parents to avoid criticizing, lecturing, or talking to much, it may be helpful to listen with your lips closed. You can let your child know you are listening closely by saying, “Hmm,” “Um,” “Uh-huh.” You may be surprised how much your children will talk more when you talk less.
- Hold regular family meetings. Place a blank piece of paper on the refrigerator door to serve as an agenda. Whenever there is a problem, invite your child to write it on the agenda—or you can. Placing a problem on the agenda serves as a cooling-off period. It is not effective to try to solve a problem at the time of conflict when everyone is upset. During the family meeting, the whole family (which could consist of only two people) can brainstorm for solutions. Children are much more likely to follow decisions they have helped create.
- Take time for training. Teach your child how to dress him/herself, make his/her bed, pour milk, wash the dishes. Often we expect children to know what we know without taking the time for training. Then don’t do these things for your child. Too often parents dress their toddlers and preschoolers in the name of expediency, or so they will look good for the neighbors. This is the kind of subtle criticism that says, “It is more important to do things quickly and to look good for the neighbors than to help you feel capable.” Get up ten minutes earlier so your child has more time.
- Appreciate the effort. Stop looking for perfection. So what if your child doesn’t make a bed as well as you do. Do not remake the bed. This is a subtle form of criticism that shouts the message, “You can’t do anything right.” Instead, say, “I appreciate it that you took the time to make your bed.” Appreciation inspires improvement. Criticism does not.
- Get your children involved in helping you create routines. When you have a morning routine chart, for example, the routine chart becomes the boss. Instead of lecturing and criticizing, you can ask your child, “What is next on our routine chart?” Children feel motivated when they are respectfully involved in the process of what needs to be done, instead of passive objects to your controlling methods.
- Use kind and firm distraction. If your child is about to hit another child on the head with his/her sand shovel, quickly move in, pick your child up and say, “Shovels are for digging, not for hitting.” Children under three do not understand abstract concepts such as, “Bad boy/girl. You should never hit anyone. That hurts. Would you like me to hit you and show you how it feels?” In the former action, you have demonstrated a loving way to solve a problem. In the latter, you have modeled negative ways to solve a problem. Children learn more from actions than from words. Young children need close supervision.
Activity: Goal Setting with Children
- Make a date. You will be more effective if you set up an appointment with your child. Let him or her know that you would enjoy exploring goals and figure out a time that works for both of you.
- As with any date, make it special. Ask your child if he or she would like to have dinner together before or after you discuss goals.
- Bring a pad of paper and pencil for brainstorming. While sitting at a table, facilitate the discussion by asking some questions that invite enthusiastic participation. Some examples:
- What do you like to do for fun and enjoyment?
- What do you want your life to look like when you grow up?
- What do you need to do to accomplish what you want?
- What kind of jobs would allow you to do what you love?
- What might you need to do now, even though it doesn’t seem like much fun, so you can have what you want later?
- How can I support you in attaining your goals (way short of doing it for you)?
- If it seems appropriate, share some of your experiences with goal setting or lack thereof.