7 Keys to Getting Kids to Listen

Isn’t it amazing how selectively our kids listen to us? If they don’t like what they’re hearing, they have an uncanny ability to tune it out and engross themselves in a book or toy instead. I’m sure you’ve experienced this universal kid skill. The thing is, it’s not just children who tune out. We do the exact same thing to them all the time. In fact, I’m guessing we’re where they learned the skill in the first place.

Not a pretty picture, but a good place to begin if we want our kids to truly listen and respond to us when we speak to them.

1)   Listen to children—

Good listening skills are not innate, they’re learned, just like any other skill. Children don’t naturally understand that it’s considered disrespectful to avoid eye contact. They’re just doing what comes naturally to them, avoiding conflict or confrontation.

By modeling good listening skills to your child, you’re showing them exactly what you’re wanting. And since kids are hard wired to imitate their parents, they’re already more likely to listen well and respond respectfully when they’re exposed to those behaviors every day.

So the next time you find yourself tuning out as your child is telling a long involved and possibly nonsensical story, breathe, relax and give him your complete attention. Make eye contact, and give the appropriate social signals that you’re engaged. You might even want to ask some follow up questions just to be sure you heard correctly.

2)   Practice Compassion—

Rather than taking “not listening” as an affront, considering it rude or disrespectful, try to see it for what it is, a genuine attempt to keep the peace.

If you think about the specific times when your child is most likely to employ the avoidance strategy of “not listening,” you may see a pattern. He avoids listening when you ask him to clean up his toys. Or she won’t make eye contact after she’s hit her sister. Most often, children are attempting to avoid conflict, embarrassment, added work, or punishment when they refuse to give us their attention.

So I recommend practicing empathy and compassion as you approach a child who isn’t listening. By showing your child that you understand what’s happening for him, you’re much more likely to get his attention and eventually to get your own message across.

3)   Get close and be very very quiet—

Our natural reaction when kids don’t listen is to speak louder and louder until we’re yelling across the house feeling more and more frustrated. “I KNOW she can hear me,” you think. Don’t be so sure.

When we yell, our kids shut down, go into fight or flight, and are actually less able to listen and process information. Instead, try going over to your child and whispering in his ear.

I first tried this as an assistant teacher in a Montessori classroom. Peace is a huge part of the Montessori curriculum and maintaining a peaceful classroom that provides the most potential for learning and focus is hugely important. Rather than raising our voices in the classroom, we were taught to walk over to the child, get down on her level, gently tap her shoulder, make eye contact and quietly speak to the child.

Amazingly, this works like a charm! Even in situations that were about to go haywire, my calm and quiet reminders helped the children remember the rules and follow them more easily. And in the times when I forgot, got upset, or raised my voice, guess what happened? The volume and energy in the whole classroom was negatively affected.

And I can tell you from experience that the exact same thing happens at home. When we’re able to maintain a calm and peaceful tone of voice, our kids can hear us and are much more likely to respond in the ways we’d like.

4)   Only say it ONCE—

This one is hugely important. Think about it this way, every time you repeat yourself, you’re actually training your kids not to listen to you the first time. When they know that you’ll say it 10 times, there’s really no need to pay attention the first 9 times. Kids can be pretty sure they’ll hear it again and again, so why even tune in?

On the other hand, when you refuse to repeat yourself, children learn quickly that they must pay attention or they might miss crucially important information.

Now I don’t mean that you can never repeat yourself if your child is genuinely curious and truly didn’t hear you the first time. It’s just the incessant repetition with no response that is troublesome. And if you’re not sure if they heard you the first time, ask!

5)   Tell them exactly how you’d like them to respond—

As I mentioned before, children don’t come already equipped with all of the information they need to respond to us or other people in socially acceptable ways. They actually have to learn the appropriate responses. So instead of getting frustrated, let’s try some patient instruction.

When my daughter doesn’t respond in the way I’d like, I simply model it for her or ask her to do it. I’ll say, “I hear you Mommy,” and wait for her to repeat, or I’ll ask, “Will you please let me know that you heard me? You can say, ‘OK Mom!”

And if your child isn’t quite as cooperative as mine is, offer them some responses that meet everyone’s needs. “I hear you Mom and I’ll take care of that after I’m finished with my puzzle.” Or give them the option of giving you a thumbs up if they’ve heard you.

6)   Ask them to repeat it—

We’ve already gone over the importance of NOT repeating yourself, so how can you be sure your child really heard and understood your request? Ask them to repeat what you’ve said. “Hey Julia, did you hear what I asked a moment ago? Can you tell me what I said?” Or be playfully forgetful, “Wait, what did I just say? I can’t even remember! (wink wink)”

The most important part of this practice is remaining completely calm and relaxed as you ask your child to repeat your words. The repetition is not a punishment, it’s simply an attempt to ascertain whether your communication has been effective.

When we have tension in our voices as we ask these types of questions we’re not likely to get a positive response. Remember, no one likes to be forced to do anything so keep an inviting rather than a demanding tone of voice and you’ll have a lot more success.

7)   Have some fun—

Never forget that being playful and easygoing is the quickest way to get a child’s attention. Getting upset only triggers kids into shut down mode, but playing a fun game is a sure-fire way to engage and invite children into your world.

Rather than getting angry, see if you can figure out a way to make listening to you more fun than the alternative. Turn it into a game of who has super keen hearing, or who can guess what you want when you act it out in pantomime. Try learning sign language together or make your request in song and dance.

By lightening up and learning to play and have more fun, you’re showing your kids that you’re willing to step into their world a little bit more and I’ve found that whenever I’m willing to do that, children are happy to reciprocate.

I’m so curious whether you’ve tried these keys yourself and how they’ve worked for you. Please share your insights and stories below!

And have a wonderful week, Shelly



There are times when I can't always remember engaging ways to get a child to do as I ask and I find myself starting to get frustrated. First I take a deep breath to calm myself down. Then I get very close, call her by name, and ask her to please cooperate with me right now.  It's surprising how well this has worked for me.

AwakeShelly moderator

@Christee Hee hee, I'm glad it works for you Mom! Thanks for modelling such a respectful way of communicating when I was little and for using it again now with your granddaughter. You're the best! xoxo