A familiar complaint from parents is that children “don’t listen.” What a mom or dad usually means is that a child doesn’t do what they tell him to do. Often, it refers to routines like, “get dressed, pick up your toys, come to the table, finish your lunch”. and more of the same. In another vein it might be, “stop hitting your brother, stop whining, or don’t take her toys.”
So the real meaning of children not listening is that they don’t obey us. If they would just do as they are told, it would make life so much easier. As it is, everything turns into a conflict and a struggle. When it is ongoing, parents begin to feel that there must be some magic that can make it all stop. Or they worry about something being wrong with a child who seems always to defy them.
This all came to mind when a father, who had had some concerns about his young daughter, shared some of her school work with me. Apparently, a classroom teacher each month gave the children a motto, along with an assignment to write about how it might apply to them. For example, one month the assignment was “Choose to be persistent and do your best. Write about what’s best about you.” Another month it was, “Choose to Set Goals. Tell how you plan to reach one of your goals.” Each topic was preceded by a proverb or quote from someone worth quoting.
The one that particularly struck me had to do with the Golden Rule. The assignment was to “write about the ways you follow the Golden Rule.” What follows is exactly what the child wrote, errors in spelling and grammar included:
“I follow the Golden Rule because I treat people with the same respect I want to be treated with and I stand up for other people that aer yunger on the bus. I help people that have a problem. I stand up for my self when I need to. I am kind to others. I treat people nicely. I help people crros in front of the bus. I help people with math. I help people spell words. I help people that need to be helped. I help people do there work when they need to. I help people do there homework.”
Is this child’s self description an accurate picture of her actual behavior? Not really. Maybe at times, but not always. What makes it interesting is not only that it shows she understands the concept of the Golden Rule. More important, it shows the kind of behavior to which she aspires. She has taken in certain ideas relating to the kind of person who would be valued. . . . the kind of person she would like to be.
Parents often express amazement – and disbelief – about hearing of their children’s exemplary behavior at someone else’s home. Or when they find that a school report reflects no sign of troublesome behavior at home. This disparity is another example that children have taken in parental expectations of behavior. They demonstrate children’s ability to meet such expectations in situations other than at home.
When children in this way show that they do have the capacity to behave in desired ways, it often is a source of irritation to their parents. If they clearly know the “right” way to behave, why don’t they behave that way at home? If they “listen” to others, why don’t they listen to their parents?
One reason is that behaving in certain ways, controlling impulses, giving up your own wishes in order to meet the requests of others, is still hard work for young children. Often, when children start school they are exhausted when they come home. That is because functioning in a group, where they do have to exercise various controls over their behavior takes great effort. Children may rebel at having to keep exerting such effort all through the day at home.
Another factor that enters in is that when children dawdle, or don’t respond as quickly as parents might like, parents ongoing prompting and trying to move children along turns into nagging. When parents nag, children tune out and literally don’t listen.
Of course, there are numerous other reasons why children may become defiant. Although at times difficult for parents, it is an important part of development that children begin to assert themselves. At times they develop a sense of their own identity by acting in opposition to their parents. Also, they may behave defiantly when parents seem to disregard their own emerging ideas and wishes which differ from what parents want.
In an assignment about having a positive attitude, the child I referred to earlier wrote that “I think my dad has a positive attitude because he is always there for me and is persistent and helps me if there is something rong. And helps me with my homework.” Perhaps she has identified two important ingredients for children: “a positive attitude” and “persistence.”
The lesson for parents: be persistent in your expectations, and keep a positive attitude while doing so. Your children are taking it all in and at some point will show you that they do listen.