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Children will listen to you AFTER they feel listened to.
by Dr. Jane Nelsen


When parents say, “My child doesn’t listen,” what they really mean is that my child doesn’t obey.” Parents give orders and children resist orders—just as their parent most likely would. If you are experiencing power-struggles with your children, take a look at your part in creating the power-struggle.

Most kids don't listen to parents because parents talk too much and don't give children a good model of what listening is about. Children learn what they live. How can they learn to listen if parents don’t model what listening looks like? Children will listen to you AFTER they feel listened to. Most kids cover their ears when the lectures start. They may not have the courage to do it physically, but they find other ways to "tune out."

Parents do too much "telling" instead of “asking,” and then listening. They tell their children what happened, and then tell them what caused it to happen, and then tell them how they should feel about what happened, and then tell them what they should do about what happened. It is much more effective to ask a child what happened, what caused it to happen, how she feels about it, and what she can do about it. (See Curiosity Questions tool card.)

Dora complained that her four-year-old daughter, Katie, never listens to anything she says. Dora continued with an example: This morning I'm getting my son into the car seat while Katie is playing in a puddle. I say, “Stop it, and get in the car,” but she continues over and over to walk through and splash. I start to get mad and she knows it, but still continues. Once I finally get her in the car, I talk to her about what happened and she covers her ears. She is mad all the way to school. This is an example of all the little things that she does that drive me crazy. It is like this all day long. She is constantly doing things just to bother us.

There is so much going on here that a book could be written about it, so I will keep it as simple as possible. For now, I won’t go in to details about the possibility that Katie is feeling “dethroned” by her little brother and has chosen a “mistaken goal” (possibly misguided power) as a way to feel belonging and significance. She probably senses that she is “a bother,” which invites discouragement and more mistaken ideas about how to feel loved—or rebelling because (at a subconscious level) she doesn’t feel loved.

Let’s just focus on how asking questions and listening could help Katie feel belonging and significance, diminish the power struggle, and help both Mom and Katie enjoy their time together.

Instead of "telling" her to get out of the puddle, Dora could start by “acting instead of talking.” (See the "Act Without Words" tool card.) She could take Katie by the hand and lead her to the car – kindly and firmly. (Preferably without saying a word. Words just invite resistance.)

Yes, this is inconvenient since Dora has the baby to take care of. However, it is just as inconvenient to keep yelling at Katie and then end up angry and frustrated. Even better, Dora could take some preventative actions that could invite cooperation and help Katie feel belonging and significance at the same time. Dora might say, "Honey, I really need your help. Would you take my purse and find the keys for me while I'm getting your brother in his car seat?" Again, this could help her feel belonging and significance by giving her opportunities to use her power in useful ways.

Since moms are human beings, and often frazzled from the responsibilities getting places with two small children, it takes time to think about encouraging methods instead of methods that invite power struggles. However, we can “learn from our mistakes” and, hopefully, be ready for the next time.

When you feel a lecture coming, switch to curiosity questions. First Dora might validate Katie’s feelings to make a “connection before correction." I can see why it would be fun to jump in puddles. Someday I'm going to join you. Right now what happens to your clothes and shoes when you jump in puddles?" Let her tell you. "Can you tell me why that could be a problem?" Let her tell you. Can you think of a time when it would be okay to jump in puddles—and what you would need to wear?"

Can you see how engaging this could be to Katie? Asking curiosity questions and then listening invites Katie to use her power for thinking and looking for answers and solutions from her inner wisdom. Education comes from the root educaré, which means, "to draw forth". Most adults are trying to "stuff in" and are constantly frustrated because it doesn't work. When they try to stuff in, the lectures go "in one ear and out the other."

In addition to curiosity questions, it is important to engage children in experiences where they can use their power for problem solving. Family meetings are great for this process. Children will constantly test to see how much power they have. This is normal. It is wise to take these opportunities to teach them to use their power in constructive ways.

Some parents think these methods take too much time, but if you think about it, it is more a matter of new skills and habits than time. It takes just as much time to lecture, scold, punish, be angry, etc. Changing habits and learning new skills isn't easy—until it becomes easy. In the meantime, be kind to yourself. All parents go through these times of overwhelm. Don't be hard on yourself. Keep remembering that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn.


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