Why Won’t My Kids Listen?

Spoiler alert: you don’t (and they won’t). Wait wait wait, please keep reading, I promise there’s something useful here! If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a ton of times: it takes a village. My friends and neighbors and small group and Mothers Ministry are my village, and someone from each one of those groups has either parented their children or somehow given me a tidbit of wisdom in PRACTICAL real-time situations that stuck with me. What I mean is, I read tons of blogs and books and listened to tons of podcasts on parenting, but there’s just something about seeing a mom interact with her five-year-old who is having a colossal meltdown in front of you that makes it stick with you more than all the best blog posts in the world.

“Ok, pretend to be mad at each other so I can take the picture.”

Read on, and don’t forget to comment at the end if you have something that’s been particularly helpful in your season. Share so we can all benefit (myself included)!

What I have gathered from those friends and partners and neighbors is what is working for us in this current season (NOT that it works always, or that it will always continue to work for our family). Let me first start by reminding myself that children, especially the young ones, are not giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time. That perspective shift often times is enough to get things pointed in a different direction, and can help me deescalate.

“Why are you laughing, you’re supposed to pretend to be mad!”

Once I remember that I’m the adult, and I have the control and power to act like one (ha!), I have the ability to regroup, extend grace, or exhibit a tad more patience. No, I do not always choose this option. In fact, it’s crazy hard. Don’t let me come across like any kind of expert here — I’m learning this too, as I go, often flying by the seat of my pants!

Toddler or middle schooler, it doesn’t matter!

Step one is managing my expectations. Are they reasonable for the developmental age of the child in question? Am I respecting and treating them like a human being with needs and feelings? Are their basic needs met (are they hungry or tired)?

Step 2 is making sure my request or expectation fits within our family rules and jobs. Our 4 family rules are: Be Kind. Use Manners. Always Listen. Love Big. All of our discipline, values, and habits fit under the umbrella of these 4 rules. For example, hitting is not kind. Taking a toy from your sister is not loving. Disobeying Daddy is not listening, etc.

Stool is the timeout chair from my childhood. Wording is from here.

These are not original — my best friend gave me a cute hand-lettered print when my oldest was born that had these on them, and I copied them onto our timeout chair. I decided when I was a teacher that I did not like the sound of my voice when I was yelling, but I didn’t know how to stop because it seemed nothing else worked and I always ended up at that point. When I had kids of my own I tried really hard to work on not being so negative or yelling (fun fact: I fail at both of these regularly, but thankfully grace abounds).

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

The next things we work on are not original to me, either, much as I would love to take credit. My neighbor and friend has children around the same age as mine, and she is just chock full of biblical parenting wisdom (I keep telling her she needs to start a blog!). While talking to her children or disciplining on the fly, she would spout off these great one-liners. Not only are they easy for kids to recite back, but they are straight from Scripture. The best part is that they are good reminders for ME, and they help get me centered and calm while I’m dealing with (insert whatever small human or behavior you like here). Does it help me not yell and be negative?! Yes, most of the time, and that’s a huge win.

What’s your number 2 job? Reciting these precepts on repeat.

I adopted these as soon as we could. My kids repeat this back whenever something happens. If I say, “what is my #1 job?” they’ll say “to take care of me.” Then I’ll follow up with whatever we are struggling with– “what are some ways I take care of you?” And they say “brushing my hair, keeping me safe, etc.” It helps give reason to whatever I’m telling them to do (or not do). As noted above, rules with connection lead to respect. The idea isn’t just to spout a list of rules but to also empower them with the why. Do they spout them off joyfully and tell me I’m so wise? Nope, but as I said these are for me, too, not just for them.

Sometimes they don’t want to pick up their toys. So, we start back with the basics: Ok what is my job. What is your job. What are your hands for. What is serving? Cleaning and helping. Etc. It’s exhausting, I’m not even going to pretend it’s not. I’m waiting for the day one of them tells me my voice wasn’t giving grace as I’m reciting a rule; I will 200% deserve it! It’s obviously not failure-proof or perfect. When I can rise above what triggers my anger and remain calm, it helps. I want them to know God loves them and cares for them more than I ever could, that their mom is sinful but their Savior loves them, and that it’s not about how you behave that saves you, it’s Who saves you. It’s so hard to break the legalism/behavior modification trend. I want them to know why I’m asking them to do these things so that they feel respected, but at the end of the day obedience is not what saves us, Jesus is. 

There is a ton of Scripture that can be used for behavior, but here are the helpful verses I’ve worked on as my justification behind the jobs and our family rules meshing together. I don’t want any of the things I expect of my children to be contradictory to what God’s word says about them, so I try to always use the Bible as my plumb line.

What is my number one job? To take care of you (we also say, “to keep you safe”). — Proverbs 22:6, 3 John 1:4
What is your number one job? To listen and obey. — Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:17
What is your voice for? Giving grace to those who hear (we also say “for building up others who may be listening”). —Ephesians 4:29, Proverbs 16:24
What are your hands (or feet) for? Loving and serving (actions). — Philippians 2:4, Acts 20:34 (there are a ton more verses about hospitality and service but you get the idea–a reminder that reading Scripture in the context of the chapter, book, and Bible as a whole is so important).

Adherence to a certain set of rules isn’t what saves us, please hear my heart. Behaving/speaking/dressing/acting/praying/singing a certain way is not what saves you. The law does not save you, grace does. The law points to our sin and our need for a Savior. The broken rules often lead to natural consequences. Tonight, for example, as my oldest was supposed to be going into the bathroom to brush her teeth, she instead decided to run into her room to “hide” and in her haste missed the door and snagged her shirt on the hinge. No timeout needed, she is sad about her shirt being ripped and knows that likely wouldn’t have happened had she done the thing I asked of her initially.

There are always consequences–some of what makes all of this so hard is when they deliberately chose to go against a rule or job, then what do I do? Especially when it’s to purposefully pick a fight with a sibling. The reality is that this is where the connection and calmness in the face of the flames is so crucial and valuable. I’ll be honest, its the hardest for me in these moments, and I am still figuring it out. One thing I will say is that I’m trying to get better about meeting needs first before trying to correct behaviors. Are they hungry? Overtired? Are my expectations too high? Am I sleep deprived? Would a bath or a hug help, are they seeking connection?

You are deeply loved, Imago Dei.

Also another thing, maybe this is more because I have three girls, but when they dress up or I do their hair, we try not to tell them they look beautiful only then, because they are already beautiful–it’s how they were created. We say they’re “fancy” (or smart, creative, a problem solver, a good leader, etc.) because they are beautiful by nature according to the Bible (particularly in Psalm 139, but lots of others). You aren’t beautiful because of what’s on the outside, or even because of your behavior, you’re beautiful because you are created by the God of universe with purpose and intent. ‬‬⁠(1 Peter 3:3-4).

This is heavy stuff. Especially right now in this season (ahem, a global pandemic) and stage of life (baby who doesn’t sleep through the night, homeschooling a non-reader, and a threenager). It’s a marathon, for sure, with daily (hourly?) training and lots of redirection/veering off course/more redirection/course correction/equipment changes/calibration.

I hope this helps. It’s all helped me, even though nothing is 100% all the time (except Jesus, yes and amen). Best of luck, soldier on, and let me know in the comments what’s worked for you. Please, share with a friend who might benefit from this, too, so we can continue to encourage one another, never stopping, for as long as it is called “today.”