You ask your child to do something. They refuse. You ask nicely. They still refuse. You raise your voice just a bit to let them know you’re serious. And they refuse, again. You try to bribe them. And you get the same reaction. You finally send them to time-out or try a different discipline technique. And they still refuse—with the added bonus of being in a full-on, ear-splitting, sobbing tantrum.
A more helpful approach is something called gentle discipline, which Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a parenting expert and mom of four, outlines in her excellent, thoughtful book Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection—Not Punishment—to Raise Confident, Capable Kids.
Gentle discipline focuses on teaching and learning instead of punishing your kids. It focuses on having realistic, age-appropriate expectations and working with your kids. It focuses on being patient, compassionate and mindful. It focuses on setting boundaries and inspiring your kids “to be better and do better, while you work to set a great example for them.”
Below are five valuable tips from the book on what to do when your kids won’t listen.
Tell your child what you want them to do. According to Ockwell-Smith, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is giving their kids negative commands, as in “stop running!” and “don’t touch that!” With the former, because kids have poor logical reasoning skills, it’s not obvious to them what they should do instead of not running. As she writes, “if you don’t want them to run, what should they do? Should they skip? Jump? Hop? Crawl? Fly? Stand still?” With the latter, again their lack of logical reasoning plays a role, and so does their poor impulse control.
Instead Ockwell-Smith suggests using positive instruction, such as: “Walk, please,” and “Hands by your side, please.” Other examples include: Instead of saying, “Stop hitting your sister,” say, “Kind hands, please,” and instead of “Stop throwing,” say, “Hold the ball still in your hand, please.”
Keep commands clear and concise. It’s hard for kids to follow a series of instructions. To communicate at their developmental level, give your child only one command at a time to focus on. For instance, Ockwell-Smith suggests saying, “Please get your shoes.” Then when your child comes back, say, “Please put your shoes on.”
Make it fun. According to Ockwell-Smith, “Play is how children learn, connect, bond and communicate.” Which is why she suggests making your requests fun—into a game, a race, a song—especially if your kids are already absorbed in some kind of play.
For instance, to put away toys, “make it a ‘goal’ and throw the (soft!) toys through the goal into the toy box,” she writes. Keep count of your goals, and see if you can beat your score from the day before. To find their shoes, tell your kids to imagine they’re on an expedition, “looking for a lesser-spotted shoe monster.” To get ready for bedtime, pretend you’re a wacky nanny with a funny voice who will tickle them if they don’t get into bed right away.
Empathize. We tend to speak to our kids in ways we wouldn’t want to be spoken to. That is, how would you feel if someone kept asking you to stop doing what you’re doing—something that was very fun and important to you—to do something else (that didn’t feel like either)?
According to Ockwell-Smith, instead of saying, “I’ve told you to do it now. Why don’t you ever listen? I said now,” say, “I can see that you’re very busy at the moment, and I don’t want to interrupt your fun, but I do need to ask you to put your shoes away. Would you prefer to do it now so that you can get straight back to what you’re doing, or finish up in the next five minutes so that you can do it then?”
Ask yourself these three questions. To take a mindful approach for any parenting issue, Ockwell-Smith asks these three questions:
- Why is my child behaving this way? For instance, maybe they’re feeling overwhelmed or they don’t have the communication skills to express themselves. Or maybe they’re actually acting in an age-appropriate way.
- How is my child feeling? Look for the underlying reason behind their behavior. Maybe they’re sad or scared. Maybe they’re feeling inadequate. Maybe they’re yearning for your attention.
- What am I trying to teach my child when I discipline them? Maybe you want to help them manage their emotions or grasp good sleep hygiene or understand that doing chores is part of living as a family.
Ultimately, whether our kids aren’t listening to us or are struggling with some other behavior issue, one of the best things we can do is to empathize with them. After all, as adults, we know there’s nothing better than having someone listen to us and try to understand where we’re coming from.