My wife is always complaining that she has to repeat things several times over for me. Of course, I’m deaf, so I have a good excuse. The thing is though that I’ve known for a long time that there’s more to this problem than meets the eye.
My wife has a similar complaint with regards to my kids. She will tell them to do something only to be ignored or misheard. Quite often a simple task will require several attempts before it is completed. She can be much louder than I can and I know that my kids don’t have a hearing problem because they can hear a candy wrapper at 50 paces. I’ve also found that I have significantly greater success when I ask them to perform the same task using my own choice of words.
It’s interesting that I found the same pattern with the special needs kids in my Cub Scout pack.
I have to conclude that there is a non-hearing related auditory listening problem in individuals with various Isms. The good news is that there is also a more effective way to communicate.
It’s very interesting to note that Temple Grandin has also picked up on this problem. She refers to it in her writings as “speech clipping”.
Speech clipping seems to work in two ways. First, any speech prior to getting a person’s attention is lost and second, any speech involving any complexity, such as tasks and directions is lost.
I’ve noticed a third issue. Providing insufficient information does not galvanise children into action – particularly if the caller’s intentions are negative — and I’m particularly talking about teenagers here.
Get Attention First
From an early age, we try to teach our children to “look at us when we talk”. This isn’t always possible, particularly with kids who have eye contact issues but remember, looking doesn’t necessarily mean eye contact.
If you can see your kids, then you need to make sure that you’ve got their attention before talking. Ideally they should be at least looking in your general direction. A child holding a toy is less likely to be listening than one who isn’t, so sometimes you need to say “put your toys down until I’ve finished talking”.
If your children are out of sight, you should get acknowledgement before shouting at an empty space. I will usually tell my kids that I want to see their faces before I talk — and I’m rewarded with cute faces looking down from the top of the stairs. If nothing else, at least ask, “can you hear me?” before continuing. Note, don’t ask “are you listening?”.
I have a rule regarding shopping lists with my wife. She can ask for five things but after that, they must be written down. I’m quite often found in the shops counting my fingers and looking worried — it’s when I know there are five things and I’ve only remembered four. The important thing here is that I know that something is missing and I keep going over conversations in my head until I remember what it is.
Teenagers and children have trouble remembering more than three things, particularly if they’re complicated. It’s like when you ask someone for road directions and they give you a long verbal list of turns. Very soon, you find yourself forgetting even the first few turns.
If it’s complicated, make a written list or give your child one task at a time with an instruction to come back for the next task once it’s done.
Kids and adults also respond better to closed lists and you’ll find that a numbered list works better than randomly assigned tasks. If you need to give verbal tasks, set a limit, say “I need you to do these TEN things”.
Each time you assign a task, give it a number, “For the first thing, I need you to put all the shoes away – then come back for your next task”. When your child returns, praise them and remind them of the numbering before assigning the next task, “great work, now you only have nine tasks left”.
Give Clear & Precise Direction
Getting your kids to come to you is not too dissimilar to training dogs. If coming to you is generally a positive experience for them, then they’ll react immediately to your voice. If quite often you call them only to give them chores or homework or to berate them for some oversight, then obviously they’ll be less likely to respond to your voice.
I make a point of explaining myself when calling my kids downstairs. For example, I won’t simply yell out “John!” but will say “John, your dinner is on the table, come and eat it”. It’s longer but it conveys a message. In this case, John knows exactly why he’s coming downstairs and even if he missed the first part of the sentence, he’s certainly got the second.
Soften Chores with Sweetness
If I’m calling the kids down to do chores, I’ll often distract them first by calling them down for a treat, perhaps a drink. Once I have them in the room and preferably sitting down with their drink, then I’ll go over their chores. Doing this ensures that distracting thoughts like toys and iPads are kept to a minimum because their hands and mouths are otherwise engaged in the snack.
If possible, try to have something positive planned for once the chores are done and let your kids know upfront what they can expect once the chores are done. Rewarding for chores done is much more positive, both for them and for you, than punishing for chores which aren’t done.