Why kids don’t listen

Brain development from birth

If you are anything like me as a parent, you like to avoid answers like “because I said so” when your child asks you something. I work hard to help my daughter understand why I’m doing what I do, or why I say what I say. When she is not listening, or understanding the why, I try and explain it differently.

Surely if I make the “why” clear enough, she will cooperate with me right?


The brain takes a lot longer to develop than you might think. In fact, the grey matter of the brain is not fully developed until at least 19 to 25 years old. Grey matter is used for logical thinking and reasoning. It is used for critical thinking. It is used to understand “If I do X then Y happens”

To make things even more challenging, the brain only develops through experience. Each time you experience something you are either growing or reinforcing neural pathways.

This means the development of your brain when you are younger is incredibly limited. It is limited because of your lack of experiences, and by the lack of grey matter to learn from the experiences you do have.

If you image the image above. I want to represent the image of the circle. However, in the first image, I don’t have enough blocks to make a circle. In the second one I can get closer, but still nothing like a circle. It’s only later, when there are a lot more blocks, that I can represent a circle.

So a 3 year old will understand things very differently to a 7 year old, a 15 year old and a 19 year old.

What does that mean in practice?

This means that no matter how good I am at explaining stuff to my daughter, if she hasn’t experienced it, she won’t learn from it.

It also means if I tell her to do something “because”, then unless she cares about what comes after “because”, she is unlikely to listen.

For example, when getting her ready to go to school, as a parent that treats my child like she has a brain, I will say something like:

“Can you get your shoes on please, the bus will be here in 10 minutes”

She will probably ignore me and carry on using her phone.

I will try again

“Get your shoes on, you’ve only got a couple of minutes now and you still need to find your socks”

She still won’t listen, although she may now acknowledge me.

Minutes will pass.

Now I’m getting cross because she’s ignoring me and I know that if she misses the bus, I’ll have to take her to school. I want to threaten her with something so she’ll listen, but she doesn’t care about going to school so for her missing the bus is not a big deal. She doesn’t understand that it’s a pain for me to have to drive her to school so that doesn’t register either. In desperation to get her to listen, I start threatening.

“Right, if you don’t get your shoes on now you won’t have your phone when you get back from school”

Now she listens. She doesn’t want to lose her phone. But she’s mad at me. Because I’m threatening to take her phone away. And I’m mad at her because she’s not listening.

She gets off to school.

The next morning, we repeat the same routine. I may take her phone off her, and she may be better for a couple of days, and then we go back to square one.

Sound familiar?

What can I do about it?

This is a lot easier to deal with when you realise your child is not being dis-respectful and is not choosing not to listen. They just don’t have the pathways in their brain like you. There is no concept of consequence. No concept of missing the bus. No concept of you getting mad. To them, because of their lack of grey matter, they are confused as to why you are being so crazy!

This is not about you being a bad parent, or them being a disrespectful child. It is also not about “if they don’t learn now, they will be a nightmare when they are older”. It is simple biology and neuroscience.

Your child is a puzzle box. You have to ask “what is the most effective way to get them to do what I want?”. If you want bonus points, do it without you or them losing it!

1. Make the consequences immediate and controllable (buy back)

Because we learn from experience, you need to make the consequence immediate so they can experience them and learn from them. You also don’t want to repeat the same sequence again and again, so it’s in your interest that they learn enough to avoid doing the same thing. This means they need to be fully engaged in the action and the consquence. For example: Taking technology off them is all well and good, but in a few days time they will have forgotten what they did and now they (and you!) are stuck with a consequence they don’t understand.

In this house we have a “3 strikes and you are out” policy that is ALWAYS executed on. If she has had two warnings, I will act on the third one whatever. This puts it partly in her control.

We also have a rule that my daughter can come up with a well-reasoned counter argument. If it’s good enough, and done without a tantrum, she will be allowed to get her own way.

And finally we have a ‘buy-back’ scheme. When a consequence of her behaviour has been acted upon, she can do some sort of behaviour to earn her stuff back quicker. It has to be a behaviour, not words, as it was beahviour that lost it, and we only learn from what we do. So she might do the recycling, or help cook dinner, or tidy up, and that will get her technology back later that day rather than the next day.

2. Use the “what are you teaching me?” technique

This is a really simple technique that makes consequences immediately obvious. You can have a bit of fun with this too. The goal is to get your child to experience what you are.

Let’s say they are playing on the Xbox. You want them to stop and go to bed.

You tell them to get off the Xbox and go to bed.

They ignore you.

You tell them that half an hour has now passed and they need to go to bed. They tell you are they are in the middle of a game. You try and be reasonable. You tell them 10 more minutes

The time passes and some.

This time, instead of getting cross you try something different. You go to them and say:

“Oh I get it now, you are teaching me that we don’t listen to each other. That’s cool. I think I get it but I just need to practice it so I can be sure”

Then you come up with something that they really want, like money to buy a mod for their game, or a lift to a friends house.

“So you say “can I have £10 to buy that mod” and I say …well I say nothing because I don’t listen. Excellent. I can do the not listening thing”

Now at this point something weird will happen. This is not how it’s supposed to go. They want you to listen to them. You will have their attention now.

“Or maybe I have it wrong…” and you ask them again to come off their Xbox. I bet they do it!

3. Give them either or choices

Lastly, because we try and be reasonable, we often put too much control in the hands of our kids. They don’t have the pathways for decision making. So don’t give them open, unbounded decisions to make.

Would you like to spend 10 more minutes on your xbox now, or getting an extra half an hour tomorrow?

Would it better for you to have a bit of time on your xbox, and a bit of time doing school work or would you prefer to just get your school work out of the way now so you can have as much time as you want on your xbox later.

Play with the different techniques. See which one works best for you.

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