As a big believer in positive living, I naturally gravitated toward positive parenting once I became a mom. However, even with the best intentions, we noticed that we started to yell at times to get our rambunctious toddler boy to listen. We even began using bribes (If you get dressed and be good, I will give you a treat) and threats (If you don’t listen right now, you are going into time out).
These seem to work in the moment, but the behavior never improves. It was like a cycle continuing over and over, and the more our son didn’t listen, the more frustrated we got. It turns out that trying to get our kids to listen with yelling, bribing, or threats has more negative effects on a child’s behavior, which is clearly counterproductive. I thought there had to be a better way. And there is.
Negative Effects of Yelling, Bribes, and Threats to Get Your Kids to Listen
Creates Fear and Takes Away the Learning Opportunity
Yelling, bribes, and threats may be the easy choice to get kids to listen, but they listen out from fear instead of learning to obey and respect you as a parent. Pam Leo, the author of Connection Parenting, explains, “threats create disconnection and undermine the parent-child bond.”1
If you use threats and bribes as the only way to get your children to cooperate, then all your child gets to practice is compliance. In the long run, compliance merely chips away at your child’s self-esteem and feelings of capability.
Creates a Negative Parent-Child Relationship
Yelling, bribes, and threats also create a negative relationship between child and parent, which can cause resentment, more arguments, and ongoing conflicts.
Instead of talking AT our kids, talk WITH our kids. Yelling, bribes, and threats do not teach kids to respect their parents, and bad behavior will continue or usually worsen. When this happens, parents get more frustrated. Again, it’s that vicious, unproductive cycle that must be broken.
Creates a Habit of Kids Expecting Rewards for Behaving
Trying to get your toddler to listen by offering a reward is not necessarily bad, but what’s important is WHEN you offer it.
Psychology Today had a great point about offering a reward at the right time.2 Instead of offering the reward in the middle of a child misbehaving in exchange for them listening, offer the reward upfront before bad behavior begins. “Let’s go get ice cream if we all behave at the restaurant. Sound good?” And then don’t be afraid NOT to give the reward if your kids didn’t follow through on their end of the bargain.2
5 Ways to Get Kids to Listen Without Yelling, Bribes & Threats
1. Get Down on Their Level and Use Eye Contact
These two actions have helped us avoid and stop bad behavior. Works like magic. Parents and kids can relate better to each other when on the same eye level. Just imagine how giant everything is for little kids, including parents looking down on them.
For me, it’s like evening the playing field. Instead of looking down on my son, I get down on his level, say his name, and have eye contact. Then, I use something called the whisper technique.3 Because I am whispering, it’s like I’m telling my son a secret, and he listens intently.
My son was being very rowdy and wanted to wrestle (Papa “wrestles” with him before naptime and bedtime every day). So I came down on his level, said his name, made eye contact, and whispered, “Papa is eating right now. Once he is done, I am sure he will wrestle with you. Let’s go ask Papa if he will wrestle after he is done eating.”
It worked! I couldn’t believe I was able to get my toddler to listen by whispering. But I did! He stopped trying to wrestle with me, and we walked over to Papa just as I suggested. Miraculous!
2. Stop Saying “No” and Talk More
I caught myself saying “no” constantly to my son. Kids who hear “no” frequently end up not listening (well, maybe after the 100th time saying “no”). Even more importantly, by saying so many no’s all the time towards a child’s actions, kids lose self-confidence.
Instead, we changed this to explain why we are saying no. For example, when we get home from preschool, my son must take off his shoes and wash his hands, but he started running into the kitchen and living room with shoes on and hands not washed.
Me saying, “Please come here to take your shoes off and wash your hands,” did not work. He kept giggling in the living room while I went to pick him up and bring him back to the foyer. After this continued, I yelled one day when it happened. Then I thought there had to be a better way because yelling is not working either.
So here’s what I did:
I explained why taking shoes off and washing hands is important after coming home from school. “Remember when you felt sick? There are many germs on the bottom of our shoes and hands (even though we cannot see any with our eyes). If we don’t take our shoes off at the door and wash our hands, we can spread germs and get sick. So that’s why mommy asks you to take your shoes off and wash your hands right when we come home. It only takes a quick minute, and then you can run freely around the house, okay?”
Also, we can say no in different ways that are much more effective:
Instead of saying: “No shouting,” say, “Talk softly, please,” or instead of saying, “Don’t run,” say, “Make sure we walk to the sidewalk, and then you and your friends can run on the playground.”
This technique works wonders to get your kids to listen, and it is so simple. All it takes is repeating back what the toddler is trying to say or wants and/or acknowledging their feelings.
So, for example:
Before school, we have a short window to eat breakfast, and sometimes my son will push his breakfast aside and say he doesn’t want it. I used to say, “We only have 5 minutes to eat. Please eat your breakfast.” This didn’t work.
Now I say, “Oh, you don’t want your breakfast right now? Okay. I will put it here to the side, and when you are ready, you can take a few bites. We only have five minutes before we leave for school, so I will remind you in a minute.”
Usually, before I remind him, he’s already reaching for his breakfast to eat after a minute. Sometimes I just need to say, “Reminder: Breakfast.” Then he starts eating.
When our son asks for a toy in the store, saying “no” usually triggers him to ask 100 more times for it and then eventually cry when he knows I will not give in.
Instead, we now say, “I know you really want that toy. You have so many toys at home, so we will wait until your birthday. Do you know what month your birthday is in?”
He answers, and we redirect the conversation to something different.
It works most of the time, but sometimes he’s persistent in asking for the toy. So I then say this: “Oh, you want a toy. I understand you feel frustrated because we cannot get that toy right now. Some little boys do not have one toy. You have many toys at home, so we have to be grateful for this. Do you want to help mama pick out a yummy snack?”
The key is acknowledging and repeating what they want or are frustrated about. Then redirect.
After doing this for about five trips to the grocery store, something magical happened. My son stopped asking for toys at the store!
4. Stop Saying “Bad Boy” or “Bad Girl.”
I learned this tip from my son’s preschool teacher. He had a tough time for about a month out of the blue. He started not listening and banging his fork during lunch and other things he did not usually do.
After a few instances, the teacher shared with us what was happening, and we started to have a conversation with our son at home about how to act in school and how important it is to be a good listener.
One day when I picked my 3-year-old up from school, he immediately said he was a bad boy today. His teacher said, “You’re not a bad boy. You just have to work on a few things and good listening. Tomorrow is a new day.”
So it got me thinking about calling my son a bad boy, and we have since stopped this. Calling kids “bad” hurts their self-esteem. When kids are little, they see only the good in everything, so as parents, we must tell them they are good and other positive things about them, so they keep this positive mentality.
However, we can say certain words and behaviors are bad but refrain from calling your kid a bad boy or girl.
5. Set Expectations
This has helped tremendously in getting our toddler to listen and understand what we expect from him. And it makes a lot of sense. Even as adults, we don’t know how to act if we don’t know what to expect. The same is true of our kids. If you set an expectation of behavior before you embark on a task or an outing, your child will already know how he is supposed to act. For instance, before eating out at a restaurant, we always set expectations on how to behave, and our toddler has always been well-behaved when eating out.
Setting expectations can be done many times throughout the day. Using the same example as before about when we get home from school, we must take shoes off and wash our hands, I started setting the expectation as a reminder in the car as we pull into the garage: “I know you are excited when you get home and want to run in the house, but remember we must take your shoes off and wash hands. It only takes a minute, and then you can run and play. Remember, there are tons of germs, and we want to stay healthy and strong. You were such a good listener yesterday when you came in, took your shoes off, and washed your hands. Mommy is so proud of you.”
Low and behold, it worked! No more bolting through the house with shoes on and unwashed hands giggling.
Parenting is not easy (it’s like a fitted sheet – no one really knows how to do it despite our best intentions, and this is OKAY!!). Getting our kids to listen without yelling, bribing, or threats is even harder! However, kids just want to be heard and understood while wanting their basic needs met (hungry, tired, need attention). This is a very reasonable request and one that we share even as adults.
We have a great responsibility to shape and mold our children to be happy, positive, well-mannered kids, and the tactics above will surely help achieve this. Our little ones are learning the world around them, and especially as toddlers, it’s difficult for kids to express themselves completely – they need our help and patience to grow, develop, and thrive.
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