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How to Raise a Good Listener

It's 7:35 a.m., and my 6-year-old is robotically spooning cereal into her mouth, blinking only when there's a blip in the action on The Wild Thornberrys. "Which of these hair barrettes do you want to wear?" I inquire, proffering several options. No answer. I repeat the question. Again, no answer. So I issue an ultimatum: "Answer me or there will be no gymnastics today!" She turns to me with a confused expression and softly replies, "What?" I feel like yelling out a Charlie Brown-style auggghhh!

Yet it's exactly what I deserve for trying to talk to my child under such circumstances, according to Adele Faber, coauthor of the perennial best-seller How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. "The way in which we speak to our children can make them feel like cooperating or not," Faber notes. The biggest mistake? Demanding a response while they're involved in something else, then venting our frustration through belittling remarks such as "How many times do I have to tell you?" and "If you only...." The secret to successful cooperation lies in showing empathy, she says. But there's more to boosting listening skills than that. Here, ten can't-miss methods.

Tune out the distractions.
If you expect your kid to listen while she's engrossed by electronic entertainment  -- well, let's just say the experts don't think you'll have much luck. "It's foolish to ask children to respond when the TV is on," says Susan Zinar, Ph.D., associate professor of teaching and learning at Long Island University in Brooklyn. "It's just too distracting." The obvious solution: Unplug your youngster. The strategy works only if you're consistent, says Alan Hilfer, M.D., pediatric psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. "Confine TV and video games to weekends only, or use them just as an occasional reward," he advises. Your child will be better equipped to hear what you say.

Avoid hollering down the hall.
It's a too common mistake: yelling to the kids from, say, the kitchen, while they're in the bedroom. "Always talk one-on-one, eye-to-eye," says Zinar. First, make eye contact, stooping or kneeling down to her level if necessary. Next, manage your child's expectations. Tell her that you want her complete focus, and specify for how long: "I need to talk to you for five minutes. You can go back to playing GameBoy when I'm done." Once you've finished sharing the info with her, ask your child to repeat back what you've said so there's no misunderstanding.

Do as you say.
Recognize that you may tune out, too. Do you half-listen to your kid when he talks to you as you clean up or flip through a magazine? Remedy the situation by giving him your full attention and by practicing what Rebecca Shafir, author of The Zen of Listening and chief speech and language pathologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, MA, calls mindful minutes: Set aside ten minutes each day for just the two of you to chitchat. Ask your youngster how he's feeling, or let him vent his frustrations. "Mindful minutes foster a foundation for listening," Shafir says. "Your child sees you paying attention to him and learns the process of being respectful."

Don't sugarcoat your wishes.
Too often, parents use wording like "Why don't we start our homework now?" which implies that the child needn't take responsibility for the task (and that the job is optional). "It sounds too wishy-washy, so kids ignore it  -- and parents end up furious," explains Faber. Instead, be firm: Say, "It's time for you to start your homework now."

Stop talking so much.
When we cut our children off and give too much advice ("Wait! You should..."), deny their feelings ("Don't get so worked up..."), and brush off their attempts at conversation ("I can't talk now..."), we send the message that what they have to say isn't important. And that means they'll be less likely to try to pay attention or please us, says Shafir.

A savvier approach is to be supportive of what your kid has to tell you. When your child feels that you're being responsive to his needs as well as your own, he'll be more willing to listen to you in the future. For instance, when he says, "I just can't get this math homework done," don't insist that he simply needs to practice his fractions more. Rather, say, "Let's see if we can figure it out together."

Use one-word reminders.
Part of why parents end up nagging is that kids don't understand the urgency of their request, says Faber. So give instructions with explanations, such as "Put the milk away because it will turn sour if it sits out." If a nudge is in order, Faber suggests using a single word ("milk," for example, if the child is supposed to clear the carton from the table). "A one-word reminder is a gentle way to get your kid's attention," she notes. "It engages that sense of responsibility."

Reward their good behavior.
Praise your child when she follows through, says Shafir. "Kids remember when you say something like, 'Thanks for listening. We got this done faster as a team,'" she notes.

Know when to write rules down.
Put important points into a written contract, so your child can't fall back on the old "I didn't hear you" excuse. When one Boston student moved up to middle school and was allowed to leave the grounds at lunchtime, his mother told him which eateries he could visit. Then she asked him to write out her instructions, so there would be no misunderstanding about exactly how far the privilege extended.

Have them play it back.
It may seem counterintuitive, but you can build listening skills by asking kids to speak up rather than quiet down, says Douglas Reeves, Ph.D., chairman of the Denver-based Center for Performance Assessment. With younger kids, that means stopping midstory and saying, "What do you think will happen next?" Encourage older kids to write things out, from jotting down phone messages to keeping journals. People learn to listen by analyzing and summarizing what others have said, Reeves notes.

Make children face consequences.
When a kid habitually doesn't listen, don't repeat yourself: Doing so only sets you up for frustration and failure, because youngsters become conditioned to wait until you've said something for the fifth time. So give directions only once  -- and then let your child face the consequences if she doesn't comply, says Shafir. Liz Mumford* of White Plains, New York, does this consistently, even when the results are upsetting. "One time, I told my daughter, Natalie,* that she had to be ready in fifteen minutes to go to dance class, which she loves. But she dawdled and wasn't prepared when we needed to leave, so I kept us home," says Mumford. "Now Natalie is always on time  -- and I think she's happier to have a clear structure."

Stephanie Wood, a mom of two, lives in New York. She writes often about family issues.

*Name and location have been changed to protect privacy.