Why Won’t My Children Listen to Me?

“Kids. They just don’t listen.”

It really does seem that way, but only because we have a fundamental misunderstanding about how children listen.

Why don’t our children listen to us?

Because 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 are 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 obey. They believe that their words and their children’s reactions should somehow be on the same sympathetic frequency. And to that end, there is a plethora of advice about how to say the right words in the right way in order to get our children to do what we reasonably expect them to do: clear their places after dinner, brush their teeth, stop hitting their little brothers, etc.

But this well-meaning advice misses the whole point.

Small children—those under age seven—are imitators. They learn by watching and imitating what others do. Oh, they are listening, too! That’s why, when they drop something, they blurt out, “Sh*t!” 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.

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 you are rushing to send off a last email and wolf down a last bite of toast while calling out that it is time to get jackets and mittens on, your children will likely continue “their” play, until you get up and put on your 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. When a parent tells her child that it is time to leave the playground but then stands in the parking lot chatting with a friend for a few more minutes, her words may have said, “Go,” but her actions have said, resoundingly, “Stay.”

The real answer to the question, “Why don’t my children listen to me?” is: because you are talking.

If you want your child to hear what you say, by all means, speak. If you want your child to do what you say, act.

Four Obscure Children’s Books—And One Classic—That Every Adult Should Read

Great children’s literature captures the wisdom of human truth in a manner so simple, even grown-ups can understand. I started reading these aloud to my children over twenty years ago, and I have returned to them again and again. For maximum benefit, I suggest reading them aloud. To yourself, if you don’t have the benefit of a young listener.

  1. The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell.

Except for this first, the books are not listed in order of importance, but if you can read only one, make it this one. Jarrell is a poet, and so every word in this story resonates with exquisite light and tone. If you want to understand grief and joy, longing and love, if you want to learn how to accept what comes into your life and what doesn’t, then you need seek no further than this beautiful and tiny—it quite literally fits into the palm of your hand—story. Or is it a poem? Or a song? A whisper on the breeze? No matter. Call it what you will, it will live in your heart forever.

  1. The Wheel on the School, by Meidert Dejong.

A question is born out of wonder. That seed is planted in the fertile imagination of those who are willing to consider possibilities—even impossibilities. With cultivation, a devotion to explore unfolds, where the known is sifted through for the overlooked and where the unknown is braved for the unexpected treasures it holds. Discovery leads to awe. This is a journey we all must take, at least once. Why not begin here, with storks and wagon wheels?

  1. Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss

Read this for the sheer joy of its hyper-kinetic velocity and its gleeful linguistic Dadaism. And because it features tweetle beetles. In a battle. With paddles. In a bottle.

  1. Wolf Story, by William McCleery.

It is always about the story. The story within the story, and the story within that story. The different permutations of the same story. The telling of the story and the listening to the story and way the one affects the other. Never doubt again the necessity of story or your ability to change the story.

  1. Walk When the Moon is Full, by Frances Hammerstrom.

As we all carry on with our days—and our nights—there are other lives being led right among us, but it is so easy—too easy—to not see. To not know. This gentle chronicle of twelve walks on twelve moonlit nights is a reminder to us all that we can travel to a whole new world without ever leaving our own. All we need do is make one small shift in our own perspective—in this case: change the time—and see with child’s eyes. In other words: look with curiosity at the people and the landscape that we encounter every day.


We Are Only as Good as the Mistakes We Allow Ourselves to Make

Last week, I was sitting in the bleachers during the intermission of one of my son’s hockey games, talking with the team’s skating coach. She is the real deal. She used to coach in the National Hockey League: the pros.

She said that she wanted our boys to shoot more on the power play– a common coaching refrain– and specifically, she wanted them to try one particular shot.

But, she said, they were all afraid to do it, to take the shot and risk losing possession, so they passed the puck instead.

My son signed a contract with a Junior Hockey team this year– in the NA3-EHL for those of you who know and care. This is how most hockey players make it onto college teams. The players are mostly 18-20 years old, and they are good. Some of them are really good.

But that doesn’t stop them from being afraid.

From being limited by their fear of making a mistake.

Fear really can be a good ally. There are some mistakes that you just don’t ever want to make.

But there is a fine line between maximum effort and a mistake. And I believe that we, as parents and educators, need to encourage, allow–celebrate!– mistakes more. Yes. I am pointing a big accusatory finger at our school system, where everything is graded and god forbid anyone do something that isn’t “up to standard.”

But the truth about learning is that there is always a period when we are awkward in applying a new skill or concept. When we need to explore what works– and what doesn’t.

When our children were little, we used to pass the time on road trips by telling stories and jokes. When my son was a toddler, he decided to join in with “knock-knock” jokes.

“Knock, knock,” he’d say.

“Who’s there?” we’d answer.


“Parrot who?”

“Parrot DUMPTRUCK! Bwaaa ha ha haaaa!”

And we laughed, too, because it was funny how not-funny it was.

He totally did not get it. The point of the joke was lost on him. No grasp of anything but the most basic rhythm and pacing.


The essence of comedy isn’t words. It’s rhythm and pacing. I know this because when my husband tells a joke, everyone is rolling on the floor, and when I tell the same joke–same words– well, we’ll just be generous and say it doesn’t work out as well.

So our son had a hold on one piece of the process, but it would be years of practice before he would finally grasp the play on words. And we laughed at every single one of his jokes. The flops. The ones that almost worked, and then the ones that were successful zingers.

Can you imagine if he had been graded on his early performance? If he had been held to a standard that someone somewhere decided was representative of the entire population of two year olds?

OK– deep breaths. This is not about standards. Not. About. Standards.

No. It’s about mistakes.

If even the guys who are really good at what they do are afraid of messing up– are afraid that they CAN’T AFFORD to mess up, we have a problem with how we respond to mistakes.

What if we considered a mistake as an effort needing some refinement. Yeah, yeah. I know. Eventually, we need to see results. But I challenge you to find one mistake today–that you or someone else makes– and let it shine in the light of your approval. Just for a moment, before you go about “refining.”

A Shot at Forgiveness

A few years ago, when I was struggling with forgiveness (and don’t get me wrong–I had struggled with it since long before then and will, it appears, continue to struggle–I am just fixing this particular moment in time) I picked up Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It is a stunning and thought-provoking book that poses this question: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness.  What would you do?”  The responses of over fifty people follow.

I was deeply moved.  And also a bit confused.

Because, for me, it was as if they were all driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Do I have it backwards? I always thought that forgiveness was a process that the victim engages in to release him/herself, not the perpetrator. The perpetrator finds absolution– and self-forgiveness–by making amends, not in seeking forgiveness. Even if the amends can never erase the harm, the perpetrator puts the stone of his intention to make things right onto the balance– and he does so not to fix the victim, but to heal himself. As much as is possible.

This is one of the reasons why I spend so much time in my parenting book, Parenting in the Here and Now, encouraging parents to treat their children’s transgressions as mistakes, as signs that their children need more guidance. Mistakes need to be noticed and corrected without shaming. If harm has been done, amends can be made. By teaching our children to not fear their mistakes, but to be responsible for them and, when needed, to make amends for them, we teach them mercy–self-mercy.

And no, I am not equating childish mistakes with the Holocaust. I am just saying that we all need to be educated– practiced– at making amends and forgiving. Starting with the small stuff, so that we have a template for when the stakes are higher.

I am coming late to that class. I am still learning. I am humbled to acknowledge where I am in the process, but stating the truth is part of it. Here is one story of my journey: http://themanifeststation.net/2015/08/20/a-shot-at-forgiveness/

What is your understanding of forgiveness? I really want to know.