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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 5, No. 3 - May/June 2013

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Speak, So They Want to Listen!

By Jesper Juul (English adaptation by Hayes van der Meer, FamilyLab ANZ)

Almost every day parents write to FamilyLab and say; "My children never listen to what I say!" What they sometimes mean is that the children do not obey them or do not follow their instructions.

Perhaps they might also be saying that they feel they are not being heard or listened to. Experience tells us that the reason for this is always the same: What parents say is hardly worth listening to.

Parents, don't feel insulted! There is nothing wrong with what you say; it's usually reasonable and worthwhile.

The issues are many and may include:

  1. Contact

    Many of us assume that we connect with our children just because they are within earshot. This, of course, is not always the case. Their minds are full of things and their attention might be somewhere completely different or they are deeply focused on what they are doing right there and then. Children learn more in a day than most university students do in a week - yet we expect to get their full attention whenever we want it. It might be a good idea to knock on the door before delivering the message.

    A friendly: "Hello, Peter... Hello?" Get eye contact and notice when he is present. As a rule of thumb, this will take between four and seven seconds. When they are ready we might say: "Hi, I would like to tell you something. Are you ready to listen to me?" More often than not they will say: "Yes!" If they are not ready, it is a good idea to show patience and say: "Ok, I'll wait."

    Parents assume ownership over their children's minds and should have the right to instant access. We do not expect to have that kind of access to other adults' minds. It is worthwhile treating children with the same dignity.

  2. Voice

    Ironically, this problem occurs when we use "child friendly language" and overstate the very sweet tone. Grandparents used to be the only ones to increase their pitch a few notches but now it has become widespread.

    It's as if we speak two languages; one for adults and one for children. All we need to do is use a warm, trustworthy and respectful voice. Friendliness simply requires that our voice and body language communicate:

    "I would like you to play with something, which isn't so noisy."

    "I don't want you to bite me, but I would like to know what made you angry?"

    "I would like you to go to bed soon."

  3. Listening

    Even when we make contact and use the right tone of voice, children might not do what we want them to do. That is when negotiations should begin. But is it necessary to negotiate everything? As parents we hold the power - the power to take the child seriously as well as the power to make the right decisions - even though the child might not be able to recognise it.

    Not surprisingly, our children might become frustrated but that is all right. We need to keep the negotiation brief, make up our minds and carry the decisions through. This will cause frustration as well as comfort. There is nothing wrong with that. We will fail our leadership responsibilities when we become too flexible and incapable of making a decision. We will let our children down if we only act when there is consensus or alternatively criticise them for being dissatisfied and ungrateful with what happens.

    Some battles are worth fighting, others are not. Fortunately, help is near because there is nothing our children would rather do than make us happy and from this they learn that they are valued and included in the decision making. Ask for their help: "I don't know what to do. I understand that you would like a day off from child care but I have to go to work. Can you help me?"

    A healthy family is one where everyone has a right to express their wishes, their dreams and their needs - and is free to do so. Slowly but surely they will learn that this right does not necessarily mean they get everything they want.

About Jesper Juul

Jesper Juul is a family therapist and the founder of FamilyLab International. He is a renowned author and sought-after international speaker. Jesper Juul's international best-seller and must-have book for parents and educators is now available in an Australian/New Zealand edition: 'Raising Competent Children'. Published by

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Jesper Juul


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