Listen & Refuse

"My 2-year-old doesn't listen to me. I know she understands the word no, but she defies me anyway. When I tell her, 'Wait, please!' she laughs and runs away from me. I don't want to spank her, but I don't know what else to do."

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Younger children don't understand, "no," or "wait, please!" in the way you think they do. This is an abstract concept that is in direct opposition to their need to explore their world and to develop their sense of autonomy. As children get older, many parents unintentionally teach them to be "parent-deaf." This disease strikes many of our children early in life-especially when parents scream, yell, or lecture. Don't worry, it's not terminal. Hope is in sight if you learn to act more and talk less. If your child doesn't hear anything you say or if you find yourself repeating things over and over, she may already have tuned you out. Instead of looking for the causes of this problem or deciding it's just a stage, it is more effective to look at your behavior for what you may unconsciously be doing to create the problem.


  1. The best way to help your child listen is to say what you mean and then act instead of talk. The fewer words the better. So if your little nine-month-old is climbing the stairs, and it is not okay with you, put a barrier in front of the stairs instead of saying, "No, no, no!" If it is okay with you, but you are concerned about her safety, sit on the stairs close enough to catch her if she falls.
  2. If you are screaming, yelling, spanking, or lecturing, stop. All punitive methods are disrespectful and encourage doubt, shame, and guilt-in the future.
  3. Instead of telling your child what to do, find ways to involve him in the decision so he gets a sense of personal power and autonomy: "What are we supposed to do next?" For preverbal children say, "Next, we _____," while kindly and firmly showing them instead of telling them.
  4. Give her some warning. "We need to leave in a minute. What is the last thing you want to do on the jungle gym?" When a minute is up, leave, even if you have to pick up your child and walk away with a screaming kid.
  5. Carry a small timer around with you. Let her help you set it to one or two minutes. Then let her put the timer in her pocket so she can be ready to go when the timer goes off.
  6. Give him a choice that requires his help. "It will be time to go when I count to 20. Do you want to carry my purse to the car, or do you want to carry the keys and help me start the car?" "What is the first thing we should do when we get home, put the groceries away, or read a story?"
  7. Preverbal children might need plain ol' supervision, distraction, and redirection. In other words, as Theodore Dreikurs used to say, "Shut your mouth, and act." Quietly take your child by the hand and lead her to where she needs to go. Show her what she can do instead of what she can't do.
  8. Use your sense of humor: Here comes the tickle monster to get children who don't listen.
  9. Be empathetic when your child cries (or has a temper tantrum) out of frustration with his lack of abilities. Empathy does not mean rescuing. It does mean understanding. Give your child a hug and say, "You're really upset right now. I know you want to stay, but it's time to leave. Then hold your child and let him cry and have his feelings before you move on to the next activity.
  10. Try using one word to communicate what needs to be done for better listening: "Lawn." "Dishes." "Bathroom." "Laundry." Be sure you have eye contact and a firm and loving expression on your face. Or use ten words or less. "It's time to learn to do your own laundry."
  11. Use nonverbal signals: point at what needs to be done. Smile, but don't say a word.
  12. Writing a note for a child who can read may get his attention better than talking.
  13. Children listen carefully when you whisper (they have to really listen to hear you). Try it.
  14. Ask older children to tell you what they just heard you say. Then wait while they paraphrase.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Your job is to think of yourself as a coach and help your child succeed and learn how to do things. You're also an observer, working on learning who your child is as a unique human being. Never underestimate the ability of a young child, but on the other hand, watch carefully as you introduce new opportunities and activities and see what your child is interested in, what your child can do, and what your child needs help learning from you.
  2. Safety is a big issue, and your job is to keep your child safe without letting your fears discourage him or her. For this reason, supervision is an important parenting tool, along with kindness and firmness while redirecting your child.
  3. Children know when you mean it and when you don't. Don't say anything unless you mean it and can say it respectfully. Do not use baby talk with young children. Speak to them with the same voice you would use if talking to a friend. Then follow through (see Part 1) with dignity and respect-and usually without words.
  4. Create routines (see Part 1) for every event that happens over and over: morning, bedtime, dinner, shopping, and so on. The books Chores Without Wars and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers are excellent resources for learning to create routines for any child. Then ask your child, "What do we need to do next on our routine chart?" For children who are younger, say, "Now it's time for us to _____."
  5. Be respectful when you make requests. Don't expect children to do something "right now" when you are interrupting something they are doing. Ask, "Will it work for you to do this in five minutes or in ten minutes?" Even if you don't think a younger child understands completely what you are saying, you are training yourself to be respectful to the child by giving choices instead of commands.
  6. You may need to teach your child many things over and over before she understands. Be patient. Minimize your words and maximize your actions. Don't take your child's behavior personally and think your child is mad at you or bad or defiant. Remain the adult in the situation and do what needs to be done without guilt and shame.
  7. Ask your children if they are willing to listen before you give them information. "I have some important information about that. Would you like to hear it?" They feel respected because they have a choice. If they agree to listen, they usually will. If they don't agree and you lecture anyway, you might as well be talking to the wall.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that they will be treated kindly and firmly through their age-appropriate, developmental stages. They can learn to stay within respectful limits through the respectful model they experience from their parents.

Parenting Pointers

  1. When you understand that children don't really understand "no" the way you think they should, it makes more sense to use distraction, redirection, or any of the respectful Positive Discipline methods.
  2. Learn all you can about child development and age-appropriate behavior. The books Positive Discipline: The First Three Years and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers include information on both of these topics and how they relate to parenting.
  3. Don't give up on your children because you think they are too young to learn something. If you are following Positive Discipline methods, by practicing repetition and patient and watching your child carefully to see what she can do as a unique human, you may be surprised at what can be accomplished.
  4. It is especially easy to baby and over-protect the youngest child because this child looks so small compared to her larger siblings. Each child needs your time and energy as a teacher/coach to help her learn. Even though younger children watch and copy older siblings, be sure you spend one-on-one time with each child to help structure his or her learning.

Booster Thoughts

Mrs. Foster was wondering why she ever got into the parenting business. It felt to her that both she and her child were out of control. She did not like it that he would not "mind her," and she did not like it that she was yelling and using punitive methods that didn't work.

She attended a parenting class for parents of preschoolers and learned about age-appropriate behavior. When she changed her expectations about the perfect child who obeyed her every command, she began to enjoy her child's experimentation with autonomy and initiative. Instead of trying to control him, she started guiding him away from inappropriate behavior by showing him what he could do.

She was most amazed at how much her child seemed to calm down when she calmed down. Frustrating episodes occurred less often and were solved more quickly because of her new understanding.

1 Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Duffy, Positive Discipline: TheFirst Three Years (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998) and Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Duffy, Positive Discipline for Preschoolers (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998).

These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.