What To Do When Our Kids Don't Listen Part 1

In my last post I discussed some thoughts on how parenting has changed in the past few decades. Many parents now find themselves parenting kids who have it all and expect this to continue indefinitely.  A frustrating predicament as it often seems to lead to kids snubbing our requests. The question then becomes What Do We Do When Our Kids Don’t Listen? Simple lists just won’t cut it for this one as there is no silver bullet (point) that’s going to just solve the problem. I’m therefore going to take the time to explore several points over a series of three posts.

Before we get to the goods, I want to highlight a pearl of old school psychoanalytic wisdom that will serve as an overarching mindset as I go through each point. Call it the sauce for the meatballs or the broth for the dumplings.  A once famous psychologist named DW Winnicot came up with the concept of the “good enough mother”. Keeping with today’s cultural standards let’s refer to this as the “good enough parent”.

Winnicot’s good enough parent initially takes care to meet all of their infant’s needs, really a perfect parent. Gradually as the child grows, the good enough parent slowly meets less and less needs as the child can step into a more independent role for herself. This not only prepares the child for a more independent life, but also prepares her for dealing with the failure and loss that we all experience in our lives as we move into adulthood. Here’s the capper in this…the good enough parent is supposed to fail!

By failing as parents our kids are supposed to learn that we’re not perfect and that we will let them down. This process inevitably allows them to find love and respect for us in all our flawed glory and will ultimately enable them to love themselves, warts and all. Keeping in mind that we need to fail as parents in order to have well adjusted kids, here are some ideas for failing righteously.

We Can’t Make Them Do or Not Do: When your child is two or three years old, you can make him go to his room by carrying him there. Try that strategy when he’s a teenager! The sooner we as parents learn that we cannot force our children to do anything, the better. For the past few months, my son  has been going to bed late (9:30ish). Despite looking exhausted, he fights sleep with a number of irritating behaviors like jumping around his room, throwing around his toys, kicking the wall and coming into our room periodically to ask us a supposedly important question that he forgets before he even asks.  After a few weeks of trying to make him go to bed and stay in his bed, the only thing my wife and I had accomplished was adding to our own stress and frustration. What was driving our need for him to go to bed? We wanted to relax; we were concerned that he’d be tired the next day; we didn’t want him to think that he can stay up late as he pleases; we wanted him to listen to us and respect our authoritah! All this is still true, but we’ve stopped trying to force him to bed anyway. The result: sometimes he stays up late and sometimes he goes to bed early and sometimes he sleeps late and sometimes he wakes up early. So, nothing changed, except that now we don’t get obsessed and upset about it any more (most nights).

Play the Long Game: We can’t control anybody’s actions. We can only control our own reactions to other peoples actions. The same is true for our kids. Children’s misbehavior is usually a reaction to not getting what they want. Getting control over their emotional reactions takes time. Years. Their entire childhood. And their teenage years, too. In fact, that’s when many lessons have to be learned all over again. No lesson is learned in a day or in a single lecture; it takes multiple lessons over the course of a year or two or twenty. Learning and development is not linear; instead, teacher and student often take one step forward and two steps back. Therefore, the best and most important tool in parenting is patience. Lots of it.

Independence is a Major Goal of Parenting: Aside from ensuring survival, the main goal of parenting is to raise kids who can think and do independently. The trouble with that starts when we worry. The more we worry and micromanage, the less confident our kids will be in their ability to handle things on their own. The best way to instill confidence that our kids will make good decisions and handle their business successfully is to actually let them make decisions and handle their business. So, don’t meddle unless it is absolutely necessary. In the big picture, it really doesn’t matter if my son goes to bed at 8 or at 9. In other words, we must pick our battles or we won’t win the war.

So yes you get it, fostering independence is really important and much of the time it means parents being less involved rather than trying to control outcomes. There are, however, times where we absolutely need to be involved and firm in setting limits.  This post focused a lot on mindset, the next part will address more on what to do when we’re confronted with difficult and frustrating behavior and how to bring about change.

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.