“It looks like a beautiful ballroom!” my awestruck five-year-old daughter exclaimed. She approached the open restaurant floor and twirled with wonderment. In truth, we were had just been brought into a nice looking bistro, but I couldn’t fault her enthusiasm. We sat down to dine with some friends from out of town. It was their last night here after a really nice visit. My kids had just spent an hour swimming, jumping, and moving from the hotel pool to the hot tub and back again.
If there was a good time to bring two young kids to a nicer restaurant, it was now. They had exhausted themselves and were ready to eat.
It took some time before the waitress took our order. But because my son and daughter took to colouring, all was well.
When ten minutes turned to twenty and the food still hadn’t arrived, things weren’t going quite as ‘swimmingly.’ Soon, they were both up on their knees bouncing. Next, my daughter was playing with the chain links holding the curtains as my son attempted to slip down his chair onto the floor. Of course, my husband wasn’t there yet. And I could sense our company was becoming increasingly unimpressed with the restlessness of my kids.
One of our guests told them to stop repeatedly.
“Stop playing with your cutlery.”
“Don’t touch that.”
While I appreciated having someone in my corner, it wasn’t working. At all.
Kids will listen better if we don’t speak to them this way.
My friend correcting my kids was only using negative language. When you’re trying to get children to behave, “don’t,” “stop,” and “no, no, no,” are generally ineffective. The reason? Negative language requires our young children to double process. (Hint: we want to avoid this.) When a young child hears, “Don’t do that,” he or she is left to answer:
- What she is not to do.
- What he should be doing instead.
For someone who has only been on this earth for a few years, that’s a lofty request. Especially when they’re having fun, bored or struggling to self-regulate. Already, kids are less inclined to listen when faced with these statements. To compound the issue, the more children hear what they shouldn’t be doing, the less they want to comply. The reason for this is pretty simple. When we are told repeatedly what we are doing wrong, we lose the motivation to do right. And thus, we are left with kids who aren’t listening
Put yourself in their shoes. At work, if our boss constantly shoots down our ideas without giving constructive criticism, we lose motivation.
How to talk so your kids will listen.
In order to get our kids to listen, we must phrase our discipline and criticisms positively. My critics read these words and think I mean you should never ever use the words stop or no with your children. That certainly isn’t realistic nor is it the case. However, to get our children to listen to us we must speak in a way that both is easy to understand and is motivating to listen to.
Saying things like, “Sit down,” as opposed to, “Stop it,” is a vast improvement. However, in order to get out children to listen, we must also tell them how to direct their energy when they are struggling to self-regulate.
When it dawned on me that I wasn’t telling my children what they could do, our dining experience changed.
I replaced my requests for them to sit on their bums with asking if they’d like to go for a walk. Instead of asking them not to play with their cutlery, I suggested they play with a handful of toys I had forgotten in the bottom of the diaper bag. It worked like a charm. The last ten minutes spent waiting for our dinners was peaceful and pleasant.
Outside of a restaurant, this practice looks a bit different. Examples of this include:
- When my kids ask to go to the park without me (which they’re not allowed to do), I highlight how far they can ride their bikes on the street.
- After catching my daughter drawing on the walls (and after she scrubbed them clean), I suggested she used chalk on the basement floor.
- The other day when I caught both using a sharpie to colour, I handed them their washable markers and explained why they aren’t allowed to use sharpies.
- If they want something sweet to eat, I suggest healthy options.
- When they fight with each other, I tell them that they can’t hit or use mean words to each other. But, they are allowed to have big feelings and say things like, “I’m frustrated, sad, or angry.”
Parenting in this way is definitely more challenging than simply putting limitations on our children. However, our kids will listen so much better as a result of our efforts.