Lessons in Listening
Here’s how to talk so your preschooler pays attention.

by Pamela Kramer


If you’re the parent of a preschool-age child, you know that listening and following directions aren’t his favorite things to do. Ask him to put on his shoes or to wash up for dinner, and chances are he’ll ignore you or say “okay” and wander off. What gives?

The irony is that your child is learning to pay closer attention to things — but focusing on you is becoming less appealing in the process. “Preschoolers can concentrate for longer periods and get totally engrossed in what they’re doing,” says George Morrison, EdD, professor of early childhood education at the University of North Texas. “But at the same time, they’re also becoming more independent, which means they don’t like interruptions.” Tuning you out is just one more way of exerting some control.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay for your child to ignore you. It’s important to begin teaching him to listen now, before tuning you — and others — out becomes a habit. Building good social skills will help him at school and with friends. Here are seven smart ways to encourage your child to listen up.

The attention spans of
4- and 5-year-olds are steadily increasing. They can now focus on one activity for 12 to 25 minutes

Don’t make “long-distance” demands. Yelling from the opposite end of the house rarely gets results. When you need your child to listen, walk over to him, touch his shoulder and address him by name. Don’t speak until he makes eye contact with you; if he doesn’t answer, gently ask him to look at you. If you have something really important to say, turn off the TV or lead him to a quiet area. Using a phrase such as “it’s time for a little talk” can signal your child to pay attention.

Keep it short. Droning on or giving a long list of demands makes preschoolers tune out. Keep your sentences simple and to the point, and give your child only two or three steps at a time. (“Put on your shoes, grab your coat and get in the car.”) Ask her to repeat the instructions so she’ll remember them.

Turn down the volume. Yelling makes kids less likely to listen because they focus on your anger, not your words. “Most kids will pay attention if you speak softly because they don’t want to miss anything,” says Alice Brown, former director of Adelphi University’s Child Activity Center.

Use body language. Emphasize a request by using a gesture, such as pointing to your child’s room when you say it’s time for bed. “Giving your preschooler a visual cue will help to reinforce your instructions,” says Stewart Mostofsky, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD. Consider creating a secret signal with your child to use in public when you really need him to listen, such as pulling on your ear or winking. “Humor works better than a stern approach,” says Brown.

Let consequences kick in. State your request only once or twice, and include a consequence. “If the dolls aren’t picked up, then you can’t play outside.” This will teach your child to listen the first time.

Hear your child out. If your kid knows you’re interested in what she has to say, she’ll be more willing to listen to you, says Brown. When it’s her turn to talk, give her your full attention. Look her in the eye, ask thoughtful questions and use nods and phrases such as, “Oh, really?” and “I see” to let her know you’re interested.

Cut him some slack. Sometimes it’s necessary to let your child get caught up in his interests. “If you’re constantly interrupting him, he’s going to start tuning you out,” says Dr. Morrison. If possible, talk to him when he’s not focusing on something that’s important to him. And give him a few minutes’ notice before he has to stop one activity and start another. It will help him prepare mentally for the transition. When he does listen, let him know that you appreciate it.

Pamela Kramer is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Woman’s Day and other national magazines.

5 Reasons Kids Space Out

1. Sleepiness. Preschoolers need a minimum of 11 hours of sleep each night to help them stay attentive.

2. Hunger. Going without food makes anybody lose focus. Make sure your child eats every three or four hours.

3. Caffeine. This stimulant hides in chocolate, tea and soda, and can make it hard for your little one to concentrate.

4. Bathroom needs. Have your child take regular potty breaks.

5. Illness. If your child is sniffling and sneezing, don’t expect her to be too focused. She’ll listen better when she’s on the mend.