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Help! My Child doesn't Listen to Me!

How to Motivate and Inspire Children without Criticism

By Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. [Guest Article]


I hear this complaint from parents just about every day. “My child just doesn’t listen.” I tell them, “My guess is that you aren’t giving them an example of what listening is about. You are probably lecturing too much. Children will listen to you after they feel listened to. One day my son said to me, “Mom, I wish you had helped me set more goals for myself?” I was a bit shocked because I thought I had tried to get him to set goals and that he just didn’t want to. If you read that last sentence closely, you’ll see the problem. Helping him set goals is very different from trying to get him to set goals. My way of trying to get him to set goals included lectures and nagging. Put yourself in a child’s place. What do you feel like doing when an adult lectures or nags at you? Probably the same as most children—resist and rebel. Let’s dig a little deeper to see why. Lecturerers usually invite lecturerees to feel inadequate and stupid, and that hurts. Most people are willing to experience their hurt feelings for about 1/10th of a second before they cover up those feelings with anger and strike back or simply rebel—actively or passively. We’ll get back to goal setting in awhile. First it is helpful to know what isn’t working so you can give it up and use what does work.


Why Lectures Don’t Work: How to Motivate and Inspire without Criticism


Do you wake up in the morning thinking, “I wonder what I can do today to make my child feel stupid, inadequate, and insecure. How can I destroy my child’s self-esteem?” Of course not. Yet, that is what criticism and lectures do. How would you feel if someone was constantly saying to you, “Why can’t you ever _____? How come you never _____? How many times do I have to tell you _____? When will you ever learn _____?  I can’t believe you would do such a thing! Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Would you find this inspiring? Would it motivate you to do better? Or, would you feel stupid, inadequate, insecure -- or angry? Based on the feelings you would have, what would you decide to do? Would you want to withdraw? Would you want to avoid taking risks in an attempt to avoid criticism and lectures? Would you feel hurt and want to get even? Or would you act rebellious in an attempt to cover up your hurt feelings and pretend you didn’t care? Perhaps you would be the extremely rare person who would say, “Thank you so much. I find this very helpful and I have other concerns that I can hardly wait to discuss with you.”
Of course, not all parents use overt criticism. Many try to disguise the criticism through a kind, friendly, logical lecture. Your children are not fooled. A friendly lecture still feels like criticism to them, so they often tune out in self-defense. Later, you might say, “Didn’t you hear a word I said?” Or, “I’ve told you a hundred times _____.”

Who is the dummy? Not your children. If your children aren’t hearing you—even after a hundred times—how many times does it take for you to learn that what you are doing isn’t working? So why do parents use criticism and lectures with their children? As you can see from the above list, most criticism and lectures are the result of thoughtless reaction instead of thoughtful action based on knowledge and skills. Most parents have good intentions. They truly want to motivate their children to do better. However, they do not understand that “children do better when they feel better, not when they feel worse.” (Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?) So, how do we help our children do better? Most parents don’t realize the importance of parenting education. They know they need training for any other job, whether a bricklayer or a brain surgeon. Yet, for the most important job in the world (parenting), some parents think it is a sign of inadequacy to seek education and training. The following are some specific strategies you can use to motivate your children to do better. The first three relate to attitude changes:

  1. They don’t know what else to do. 
  2. They truly want to motivate their children to do better. 
  3. They think they are not doing their job as a parent if they don’t do something. Not knowing how to do their job effectively, they react thoughtlessly. They adopt a win/lose strategy without realizing that if they win, that makes their child the loser. Children push their buttons, and they react.
  4. Show unconditional love. Oh, you make think you love your child unconditionally, but, does your child get that message? When criticized or lectured to, a child usually believes, “I’m loved only when I live up to your expectations—which I hardly ever do.”
  5. Have faith in your child. There are many ways to demonstrate faith in your child. Some of these methods will be discussed below. The simplest way is to say, “I have faith in you to handle this problem. Let me know if you need any help.”
  6. Hold regular family meetings. Place a blank piece of paper on the refrigerator door to serve as an agenda. Whenever there is a problem, invite your child to write it on the agenda—or you can. Placing a problem on the agenda serves as a cooling-off period. It is not effective to try to solve a problem at the time of conflict when everyone is upset. During the family meeting, the whole family (which could consist of only two people) can brainstorm for solutions. Children are much more likely to follow decisions they have helped create.
  7. Take time for training. Teach your child how to dress him/herself, make his/her bed, pour milk, wash the dishes. Often we expect children to know what we know without taking the time for training. Then don’t do these things for your child. Too often parents dress their toddlers and preschoolers in the name of expediency, or so they will look good for the neighbors. This is the kind of subtle criticism that says, “It is more important to do things quickly and to look good for the neighbors than to help you feel capable.” Get up ten minutes earlier so your child has more time. 
  8. Appreciate the effort. Stop looking for perfection. So what if your child doesn’t make a bed as well as you do. Do not remake the bed. This is a subtle form of criticism that shouts the message, “You can’t do anything right.” Instead, say, “I appreciate it that you took the time to make your bed.” Appreciation inspires improvement. Criticism does not.
  9. Get your children involved in helping you create routines. When you have a morning routine chart, for example, the routine chart becomes the boss. Instead of lecturing and criticizing, you can ask your child, “What is next on our routine chart?” Children feel motivated when they are respectfully involved in the process of what needs to be done, instead of passive objects to your controlling methods.
  10. Use kind and firm distraction. If your child is about to hit another child on the head with his/her sand shovel, quickly move in, pick your child up and say, “Shovels are for digging, not for hitting.” Children under three do not understand abstract concepts such as, “Bad boy/girl. You should never hit anyone. That hurts. Would you like me to hit you and show you how it feels?” In the former action, you have demonstrated a loving way to solve a problem. In the latter, you have modeled negative ways to solve a problem. Children learn more from actions than from words. Young children need close supervision.

Criticism and lectures are not effective motivators to help your children learn important skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Now that you know that—and what to do instead—it still can be difficult to break the habit of criticism and lectures. However, when you understand the long-range results, it is worth the effort.


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