How to get your child to listen the *first* time you say something, mama

Repeating yourself isn't good for you or your relationship with your child. So what is the alternative?


Is there anything more frustrating than asking your child to do something, something simple like put on their shoes (for literally the 12th time) with no response? I can't think of anything.

Continually repeating yourself can make you feel like your child doesn't respect you, like they feel no need even to acknowledge that you've spoken, much less do what you say. It can also be downright exhausting when it happens again and again throughout the day.

Fortunately, you don't have to do it anymore. That's right; you can stop repeating yourself today because, well, it doesn't work.

Why it doesn't work to repeat yourself

Repeating yourself doesn't work for a couple of reasons. One of the biggest is that it sends the message to your child that they don't need to listen the first time.

Does the following scenario seem familiar?

You in a sweet, loving tone: "Wash your hands for dinner please."
No response.
A little more firmly, but still wonderfully calm: "Wash your hands. It's time."
With a definite increase in volume: "Wash your hands NOW. I know you hear me!"


When you do this, gradually escalate in volume and seriousness, it teaches your child that they do not need to do what you say when you ask calmly. They can wait until you mean it, basically until you're yelling or showing obvious signs of frustration and distress.

This leads to the other big problem with repeating yourself—the anger. It is entirely natural, even unavoidable, to become upset or angry when you're repeating yourself again and again for every little thing. No matter how many times you promise yourself you'll keep your cool, it often isn't possible when you're making such reasonable requests and being completely ignored.

Repeating yourself isn't good for you or your relationship with your child. So what is the alternative?

What to do instead

There are several techniques you can use to help your child listen the first time.

1. Wait until you have their attention

Go over to your child, wait for a break in what they're doing, and put a hand on their shoulder. Make eye contact. When you have their full attention, make your request.

They may still say "no," but they likely won't pretend you've never spoken. It's much harder to ignore someone who is looking right at you.

2. Follow through right away

If you know your child has heard you, but they aren't responding, go over to them and help them physically, right away.

This may look like this:

"Johnny, please put on your shoes. It's time to leave for school."
Johnny looks at you and smiles, then goes back to playing.
While calmly, slowly walking over to him, "I see you need a little help today. I can help you put your shoes on."

They may accept your help, or they may decide they want to do it on their own now that they see there's no choice about the shoes.

The key to this one is to remain calm. Yes, it can be annoying to help your child do something they're perfectly capable of doing on their own. But over time, they will learn that you mean business and they will be more likely to comply the first time you ask.

3. Pause

It is so easy to be in a hurry and ask your child to do things while you're multitasking. I frequently find myself asking my son to put his toys away and wash hands while I'm making his lunch or to go find socks and shoes while I'm finding my keys. Unfortunately, this usually doesn't work.

It is often much quicker, in the end, to slow it down and focus solely on the request you're making, just for a few seconds.

Try saying your child's name, then pause. Make eye contact and slowly ask for what you want. Remain silent and hold eye contact until they respond. It can help to count to five in your head.

It's easy to forget that young children process things much more slowly than we do. Sometimes they simply need us to slow it down.

The pause also implies expectation. It conveys that you fully expect them to do what you've asked, which makes it much more likely that they will.

4. Use shorthand

Try using one or two words to give a reminder, instead of repeating an entire request and explanation. If you have a rule that your child brings their dishes to the sink after every meal, you don't need to repeat the entire rule and reasoning each time. This is likely annoying to both you and your child.

Try saying, "Charlie, plate!" instead. A simple one-word reminder is often all they will need.

5. Agree on, and practice, a response

Sometimes your child may hear you, and may even be planning to comply after they finish what they are doing, but they make no response. No eye contact, no "Yes, Mommy" nothing.

Just as young children need to learn how to say "please" and "thank you," they sometimes need a little help learning to respond verbally when you ask them to do something.

Tell your child how you would like them to respond. You might ask them to say "Yes, Mama" or simply "Okay."

Have some fun practicing together, perhaps while you make increasingly silly requests:

"Charlie, please put your red hat on your teddy bear."
"Yes, Mama!"
"Charlie, please spin in circles and sing the ABCs."
"Yes, Mama!"

This kind of little game can help your child practice listening and is a lot more fun than a lecture.

6. Discuss expectations ahead of time

If there is a situation that is new for your child or that you suspect will be challenging for them, discuss the expectations ahead of time.

I recently started taking a music class with my 2-year-old son and quickly realized he did not understand the difference between dancing and running or galloping around the room to the music. This was a bit of a problem since the class includes babies and younger children.

The week after the first class, we practiced different kinds of dancing that would be safe. We talked about the importance of walking while there. I told him I would remind him by saying, "walking feet" if he forgot, and we practiced this at home.

These things made the next class go much more smoothly. He knew the expectations and understood what I wanted when I gave a reminder, which made it easy for him to comply.

Repeating doesn't work, and it can make us upset. Save that energy, mama. There are plenty of other times when you'll need it.

You can make small changes to the way you ask your child to do something to help them listen the first time. Not only is this more effective, but it can turn what would have been a frustrating encounter into one of bonding—bring on the extra snuggles!

Check out some tools for boosting cooperation in the Motherly Shop!

Bamboo kids step stool

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Püj rinse + play hangable kids cups

puj rinse and play hangable kids cups

Keep them in the kitchen, within your little one's reach to promote independence and leverage the multi-color system to help keep multiple kids responsible for their own cups. In the bathroom, their simplicity makes for the ultimate bath toy and tool.


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