Why Kids Don't Listen These Days

So, summer is over.  I must admit that as much as I love having my kids home, by the end I was praying for school to begin! The two weeks between the last day of structured activities like camp and the first day of school were…awful! My kids took turns barraging my wife and I with poor language, messing up the house, fighting with each other, and just not listening. I’m sure you know that feeling– your blood begins to boil and the scream wells up in your throat ready to unleash. I was there. Many times. And some of those times I lost it. I’m sure I am not the only one facing that issue. So today I’ll share my thoughts on why kids don’t listen these days, and in a follow-up post I’ll talk about what we can do about it.

Two Frustrating Situations

Parents often find themselves in two frustrating situations, no matter how old their kids are. First, our kids will not stop doing something that we want them to stop doing, even though we’ve repeatedly asked them. Second, our kids will not do something we want them to do, even though we’ve repeatedly asked them. Sounds like opposites? Actually, these scenarios have one thing in common: as parents, we cannot make our kids do or not do something we want them to do or not do, unless they want to (not) do it, too.

Let’s look at an example of that first scenario from my house. Lately, my 3.5 year old son has latched onto several rather inappropriate word combinations like “penis face” and “stupid vagina.” Experimenting with (bad) language is not unusual for kids that age and not new to my house. But unlike my older daughter, who only used these words to express her frustrations at herself and at us, my son has recognized that these words yield control and humor, too, and therefore does not stick to exclusive home use…he likes to share his word creations with the world. I’m sure you can imagine that this causes plenty of anxiety for my wife and me. Our son has recognized that, too, yet, he doesn’t stop. Instead, his use of bad words has escalated, and I believe that is because my wife and I react so strongly. But more on this in my follow-up post.

The second scenario, when kids won’t do something we want them to do, is often an extension of the first. Often we look to enforce some punishment right away, make them stop what we asked them to stop and to lay down the law. We try to send kids to “time outs” or to their rooms, but they won’t comply, or comply reluctantly. Kids are also rather reluctant to follow our requests when it comes to homework and household chores. We ask them repeatedly, yet they’re dragging their feet or flat out ignore the request and then…we’re screaming our heads off.

The Rules Have Changed

So, how do we get our kids to do what we want them to do or to stop doing what we don’t want them to do? The short answer is: Sometimes we don’t. Parents often lament that they would never have gotten away with what their kids are getting away with and that they would never have dared to talk to their parents the way their kids talk to them. This is because the rules have changed.

Two rules, specifically, are rather different now. First, a cultural shift has taken place: we generally don’t hit our kids any more. When corporal punishment was still an accepted form of parenting, your father would smack you across the face if you called him a “dumb penis fart.”  In all likelihood, you would not be saying that to your father again any time soon. Why? Biologically, we are hard-wired to avoid painful or unpleasant stimuli. For example, when my son put his hand on the glass fireplace window and burned his hand, the memory of this pain was seared into his brain, and he now knows to avoid touching the fireplace window when a fire is burning. A smack in the face can be equally memorable. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not arguing we reintroduce corporal punishment. Pain may serve as a deterrent, but pain causes fear and hinders positive learning experiences. So it is not the answer to either of the above frustrating scenarios.

Second, an economic shift has taken place. Overall, times are good. Our parents and grandparents grew up in a time where hard work might have brought stability, but it did not necessarily bring luxury or comfort. Today, many of us are able to do more than just provide necessities, and many kids can have what they want, when they want it. Our parents and grandparents lived under the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II — survival was a very real concern. Last year, my daughter saw an ad for a toy on TV and asked if she could have it. I used the time honored parental holding phrase, “We’ll see…maybe another day.” My daughter responded, “But dad we can just go over to Target today and get it.”

Our kids don’t worry about survival and they don’t fear tomorrow. They grow up thinking that the things they own or get to do are a right, not a privilege. It is that sense of entitlement that makes us parents so mad. But in a way, it’s our own fault. We no longer look at parenting as a way of preparing our kids for survival in the world — we’re just preparing them for college.

And that’s a huge difference. It is the difference between worrying about whether our kids will go to the college of their choice and worrying about whether and where they will get their next meal. Preparing someone for survival involves the very real possibility that messing up could mean physical harm or even death. That in turn involves a level of familiarity with loss and death that our college prep parenting actively tries to avoid. We don’t want our kids to experience loss or suffering, and so we shield them from experiencing the consequences of their (in)actions.

For example, my son is currently a picky eater. He may have a plate full of delicious chicken and rice and veggies in front of him and will not touch it, no matter how hungry he is. Why? Because he knows that something else is waiting for him in the fridge. Perhaps he won’t get anything else right away, as my wife and I are annoyed and trying to stay firm with him, claiming that “this is all you’re going to get tonight.” But later, yogurt, maybe, or a cheese stick await whenever he wears us down. And he almost always wears us down, because we really don’t want him to go to bed hungry. So why would my son consider my threat as a threat, if I never follow through? He’s never gone hungry, even though many times I’ve heard myself say to my wife, “I’m not going to feed these kids for three days and we’ll see if they turn down a meal!” But I never actually do it, never actually dish out a serious consequence, because I’d feel bad about withholding food when there is no real need to use food sparingly. If our fridge wasn’t filled to the brim, every meal would be more precious, I’d be more inclined to enforce consequences and my son would know that skipping dinner means going hungry.

We expect our kids to respond to our requests and commands with respect, but cultural and economic changes as well as revised attitudes towards parenting have made it increasingly difficult for today’s parents to effectively use the fear of consequences to motivate kids to either do or not do as we ask.  So what can we do to get our kids to listen to us?

Tune in next time and I’ll address this.