My husband and I used to have a joke that went like this: “Imagine you're at a meeting of the full assembly of the United Nations. Progress on an important item on the agenda has been stalled. Several of the members have dug in their heels and will not be moved by reasoned arguments or impassioned pleas. The Secretary General, sensing that the situation calls for extreme measures, decides to bring in a heavy-hitter, someone so gifted at the arts of persuasion and negotiation that no one yet has been able to hold up under the pressure. He opens the door and ushers in… a four-year-old.”
But it wasn’t funny.
We told the joke to relieve our frustration about the predicament in which we too often found ourselves: arguing with our four-year-old daughter about mundane, daily events such as hanging up a towel or coming to the dinner table.
We would give her reasons why – compelling reasons! – and she would give us reasons why not.
Our intentions were good. We wanted to avoid using the old and discredited, “Because I told you so.” We hoped to enlist her cooperation in a way that felt more respectful, and so we explained everything, believing that our daughter would be swayed by the weight of our logical and sensible arguments.
But the more we explained, the less our daughter listened, until one day my husband said, “Ten thousand times is the charm,” and the futility of our approach dawned on me.
By explaining, we were teaching our daughter to argue instead of listen.
Ten thousand times was the charm—not for my daughter to finally listen to me, but for me to learn a fundamental lesson about how small children listen.
Children don’t listen with their ears, at least not in an actionable way. Oh, the sound waves of our voices do enter their ear canals and the little bones in their middle ears vibrate and send the sensation of our words to their brains. But that is not the resonance we're really after – the actual hearing. We want – and need – our children to respond to what we say.
Most of the time, when parents complain that their children don’t listen, what they really mean is that their children don’t do what they're told. They believe, as I did, that if they could just say the right words in the right way, their children would somehow be on the same sympathetic frequency and would therefore do what we parents reasonably expect them to do: clear their places after dinner, brush their teeth, stop hitting their little brothers, etc.
Small children are imitators. They learn by watching and imitating what others do. They're listening, too! That’s why, when they drop something, they blurt out that curse word with just the same force and inflection we give it when we drop something. Similarly, our children will learn to greet the neighbors with a friendly wave and a, “Hi, how are you?” if they see and hear us doing it that way consistently.
And if we explain – argue – why they must or must not do something, they will do the same.
Children listen with their whole bodies, not just their ears. Their operating language is action. It is all about what we do, not what we say. Children need to be shown what to do – over and over and over – not told what to do.
So if I'm rushing to send off a last email and wolf down a last bite of toast while calling out that it's time to get jackets and mittens on, my children will likely continue their play, until I get up and put on my own jacket and mittens.
And just as children learn by imitating what we do, they also learn that our words don’t really mean anything when we do not match our words with our actions. If I tell my child that it's time to leave the playground but then I stand in the parking lot chatting with a friend for a few more minutes, my words may have said, “Go,” but my actions have said, resoundingly, “Stay.”
The real answer to the question so many of us parents ask, “Why don’t my children listen to me?” is: because we are talking.
If we want our children to hear what we say, we can, by all means, go ahead and speak.
If we want our children to do what we say, we need to provide a worthy model. We need to act.
My four-year-old has since graduated college with a philosophy major, for which I will take a smidgen of credit: I really did teach her to argue. But there is a time and a place when that is healthy, and it's not in the kitchen with a small child when it’s time to be getting out the door.