I hesitated to write this. This is not because I doubt myself. It’s because I’m an incredibly thoughtful person, and I don’t want to hurt people. But, I don’t know. Something pushed me to write this, which was probably 1) the truth of what I am saying and 2) a general thought that people are hardier than most give credit for.
Ok. Here it is. Your children will never “listen” to you. They definitely will never “just listen” to you. They aren’t designed to do this. This will not happen.
Let’s break down what is meant when someone says, “My child isn’t listening!” What is really meant is “My child isn’t obeying.” Whether or not they hear and understand you is not the issue. They are not complying. They are not putting their shoes on, won’t stop hitting their sibling, or keep touching something they shouldn’t touch. How much different would it be if instead of saying “My child isn’t listening,” more people described it as it is, “My child isn’t obeying.”
The Default is Rocky, not Calm
The problem is in the expectation. This is something I am going to be deeply challenging. The expectation is that adult life is catered to. The expectation is that as a child moves into an adult space, as they do when they are simply born. As they do, the expectation is that they will, with a few words of explanation from the adult, “listen,” i.e. comply. It’s seen that this is how it should go. The expectation is that most of life is calm, and children are mostly calm and play independently, and everything continues on as normal. And then, wut. This child comes along that isn’t doing ask asked.
We cannot ever expect that a child will simply listen to adults. We need to invest in the right relationship with our child and the right language with which to speak to them to gain their trust. This exact space where a parent expect a child to listen is where they have to get their parenting mojo on. You need to figure out a way to come up with a solution to this problem. What is needed here is conflict resolution. I am so strong in my advocacy that child development is not something we should ever control that I no longer call it “discipline.” At no point should we try to influence a child’s core, through punishment or negligence (such as “ignoring the behavior so you don’t feed the attention”) in order to get them to do anything. What you have here is not a bad child. You have a conflict of interest. Something that the child wants or needs is not being satisfied, and they are telling you the only way they can: by acting out, getting angry, defying you. You need to get in their world, somehow. I have all sorts of ideas of how to do that here on my Observant Mom page. I tried to condense it as best I could into The Shortest Explanation Possible of Nonpunitive Parenting. The most important thing you can do is garner their trust. They need to feel that you usually satisfy their needs–so there is no need to resist you. Punishment erodes this trust.
Tabula Rasa (“Blank”) versus Child Development
The attitudes towards children are really what needs to change. We are still living with remnants of the idea that children should be, or even can be, “seen but not heard.” The attitudes toward human nature that dominated the 20th century are that people are “blank.” That is, they are born blank inside, and what values they are exposed to or adopt determine their very being. This blank slate idea lends itself to the idea that a child is just an empty vessel that has no gripping, nonnegotiable thoughts and needs. Children are mostly calm and if around the right influences, they will be calm and educated, and if around the wrong ones, they turn out “bad.”
I hope my work (as well as many others) starts to change this–or maybe drives a stake through the heart of the old thought patterns. My work documents the age-related stages children go through. At first, children become more demanding, but these are times when their brain is upgrading. After the demanding phase, they have astonishing new abilities. In other words, all children–even the most educated, the most loved, the most “disciplined”–will at times be “bad.” Get it out of your head that anyone, anywhere has perfectly calm children at all times. Get it out of your head that you’ll never be “that” mom with the crying kid in public. This is a life problem that will be in your lap.
I wrote a book that is yet published called Towards Liberalism, which I will advertise on this page in the future, in which I challenge this idea of a blank slate theory and what it means for child development. I argue liberalism is 1) the study of the natural world and 2) the rejection of punitive means. I hope you see how integral that idea is to this work on child development I do.
Get Serious About Child Development
Instead of looking at any of this as an annoyance–an almost attack on peaceful adult life–I am advocating we finally put serious thought and resources into it. We need to wrap our minds and arms fully around child behavior, and deal with it patiently, wisely, and with love.
I have been in way too many situations–it is actually just about everywhere I go–where the adult expectation is that children simply “listen.” When inevitable problems come up–children fight, they want to wiggle, they don’t sit for hours, they don’t do a pushup on the spot as the adult asked, they whine, etc.–the adult reaction is anger. They seek to control the child rather than manage the situation. While the adult could have, say, been getting the child a drink, which would have calmed the child down and let them know their needs are going to be satisfied, the adult is growling at the child to get their shoes on–or else. This does nothing. NOTHING. It adds anxiety to the situation. I’m honestly tired of it. The issue really is: are we going to deal with children and commit to the work it is with joy and wisdom or are we going to get annoyed by it and try to control children to be different, be less whiny, be less in our face?
Whoever is reading this has already decided to deal with it. Unfortunately, in my estimation, the majority of people have the latter reaction. Imagine if, on social media, instead of seeing the constant posts of people venting about their children, calling them “terdlers,” excited the children finally leave for school, etc., it was culturally held as a value that it is our solemn responsibility to care for children wisely and well. I am for processing how difficult parenting is, but this is different from venting. I’ll be the first to sit next to you if you’re trying and struggling. But the annoyance that one even has to deal with it is where I take issue. This is what we need to band together to do: yup, parenting is hard. We acknowledge it and put effort into it. Somehow this idea of our problems and vulnerabilities unite us and help us work together got seriously lost in Western thought. Get up and console the child. Get into their world. Think about how to educate them. Lend a hand. This is the Utopia I’m working towards. There’s the life problem: the child with huge, demanding needs. There we are: the adults, the solution. And that’s it. And you’ll see when you just surrender to it, it’s actually a joy. See my post Nonresistant Parenting.
The whole ship needs turned around. The way we live is very performance and “discipline” oriented. We can instead be nurturing and caregiving oriented. All of this really can be a joy. But first you have to surrender to the reality of what we are dealing with. I want this work to be transformational for people and for society. It’s meant to define the problem clearly and change the way we think about children. They are not by default calm. They are by default full of life. That turmoil and rockiness needs dealt with first. That’s the first thing any school or caregiving institution should think of: how are we going to deal with natural child age-related stages? Not how we are going to get them to sit down and listen.
Children are not designed to “listen.” They are designed to be free. They are designed to move. They are designed to provoke you in order to get their needs satisfied. I know parenting can be frustrating, especially in a world that borders on the psychotic with how busy it is. But we need to deal with it, all hands in.
I hesitated to write this. But I did. Because maybe you needed to hear it.