Hey, homeschoolers! The most popular question I have gotten when I encourage parents to consider homeschooling is this: How can I homeschool if my child won’t listen to me? If you’re already homeschooling, you may have this question with a twist. How can I KEEP homeschooling if my child won’t listen to me? I want to respond to this question with a truthful answer that can be life changing.
But first, I would love to have you join me at Great Homeschool Conventions this year. I will be leading a Boundary Bootcamp for parents that you won’t want to miss. I’ll be in Greenville, SC and St. Charles, Missouri in March, Cincinnati in April, Ontario, California in June, and Round Rock, Texas in July. I hope you’ll stop by the Grammar Galaxy Books booth to say hello. I love talking with you in person.
Why solving the problem of a child who won’t listen to you is so important
But now I want to answer the question of homeschooling a child who won’t listen to you. There is a good reason to ask this question. If your child won’t pay attention to you when you’re speaking, how can you teach? How will your child learn if she can’t hear you reading or explaining how to do long division? If he walks out of the room or puts headphones on or just disconnects, how will he get an education? It’s frustrating and frightening to say the least.
Refusing to listen is a problem, but the question speaks to a broader issue of disrespect and disobedience. If your child won’t answer you respectfully or complete work when instructed to, all your beautiful homeschool plans are for nothing. What if your child simply doesn’t want to learn? Doesn’t even care? Is there really anything you can do?
It’s the same problem many classroom teachers have. They have some undisciplined students who won’t stop talking and will not follow instructions. Other students can’t hear and class is constantly being interrupted by unruly students. Classroom teachers have limited options for disciplining such students. They can be sent to the principal’s office or the whole class can leave the room while the problem child attacks the classroom like a Tasmanian devil. I wish this was a hypothetical situation, but unfortunately, it is not.
A child who won’t listen isn’t just a problem in the homeschool or traditional classroom, though. This child can wreak havoc on your marriage, your other children, and your home. In the process, a child who won’t listen can steal your joy and your sanity.
If your child is young, you may be hoping she’ll grow out of it. Unfortunately, she’s more likely to grow into it. She’ll realize that she can do whatever she wants because you both know there’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll steal your car, drain your bank account, and run off with a violent guy. Again, not hypothetical.
Now that I’ve terrified you, my point is this: Whether you choose to homeschool or not, a child who won’t listen is a serious problem. We have to respond to it in the same way we would to a diagnosis that threatens our child’s life. Because a disobedient child isn’t likely to live long. Here is what the Bible has to say:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Ephesians 6:1-3.
The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures. Proverbs 30:17
That gross image tells us that disobedience naturally leads to a shorter life. If we were told that our child had a medical condition that could lead to an early death unless we got the medication, the treatment, or the surgery, we would do it. But when it comes to a child not listening, we aren’t necessarily ready to take action. Why?
Why are we reluctant to take action when our child doesn’t listen to us?
The first reason is we think it’s natural for children to be disobedient, and we’re right. It is natural! It’s human to rebel, to disobey, to refuse to listen. Read about the Israelites in the Bible and you’ll see example after example of disobedience.
But it’s natural for weeds to grow in the garden too, and we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, my plants will grow tall enough to overcome the weeds. No worries.” Natural behavior that is sinful needs to be rooted out before it weakens our young plants.
But our response to disobedience has to be measured according to our child’s age. To use a gardening analogy again, I wouldn’t quickly rip out a big weed growing next to a new sprout. I would have to be gentle. When a toddler tries to hit me when I ask him to stop doing something, I don’t slap him. I grab the hand in mid-air and say no very firmly. “You don’t hit mommy,” and I let my face communicate that I am serious about it.
While it’s natural for children not to listen, our response has to be to train them to obey–not ignoring it and hoping they change.
The second reason we don’t take action when our child doesn’t listen is we don’t believe we deserve respect. When I had my first baby, I was horrified that they were sending him home with me. I had no idea what I was doing, but they were going to trust me with this tiny creature? Yet they did, and I learned how to parent.
But as with anything learned, I made mistakes. Not only did I make mistakes in my parenting, but I made mistakes in my marriage, and my life. My kids didn’t know about many of those mistakes, but I did. I knew the things I’d said to my husband in anger. I knew that I put off church work that I’d committed to. I knew I wasn’t making good food choices.
So when it came time to ask my children to listen to me, to obey me, there was a part of me that thought, “Why should they? What a hypocrite!” But that’s not how parenting works. When a police officer pulls me over for speeding, do I ask, “Well, have you ever been speeding? If you have, I don’t have to give you my driver’s license then, do I?” I could follow that up by cranking up the music and driving away. Ridiculous, right? Yet this is how some of us think of ourselves as parents–only able to ask a child to listen if we are perfect.
We can expect respect and obedience because of our role. We are in authority in our children’s lives in God’s place. When we make mistakes, it is God’s job to correct us–not our children’s. Our authority is not dependent on our perfection. If it were, the family structure would fall apart. If our children do not learn to respect our imperfect authority, how will they ever make it in a world full of even more imperfect authorities?
A third reason we don’t take action when our child doesn’t listen is we don’t believe we have any power in the situation. Most often this comes from our own early experience of feeling powerless. You might have had a domineering or even an abusive parent. You might have been the victim of bullying or assault. You might even have continued to develop relationships with people who push you around. Or maybe it’s none of this and you just have a personality that hates conflict.
Regardless of the reason, know that you DO have the power to act if your child disrespects or disobeys you. If your child is small enough, you can physically remove or restrain your child. You can deny privileges. You can require restitution like doing extra chores, even if you have to get your spouse to back you up.
We must train our children to listen to us even though not listening is natural, even though we’re imperfect, and even though we feel powerless. This training is more important than anything academic. A brilliant, disrespectful child does not have a bright future and will make us miserable.
So how do we train our child to listen to us?
First, make it clear to your child that the disrespect of not listening will not be tolerated. Label the behavior as disrespect and be firm about it. “That was disrespectful.” Ask your child to give a respectful response instead. If your child puts ear buds in when you say it’s time for math, say, “That was disrespectful. Give me the ear buds. I’m going to say that it’s time for math again. This time, I want you to say, “Yes, Mom.” When your child does as you say, you should give praise like, “I appreciate your cooperation. Thank you.”
Teach your child to use the wise appeal. This approach is explained in the book Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids, by Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller. In the wise appeal, your child makes it clear that she is ready to obey but politely asks for a modification of your request. So you say, “It’s time for math” and your child says, “No! I’m going to read instead.” At the beginning of training, you would remind her that she’s being disrespectful and should use the wise appeal. In this case, her response would be, “I know you want me to do math now, but I’m in the middle of this chapter. Would it be okay if I finished the chapter first?” When your child uses the wise appeal, you also give praise like, “Thank you for agreeing to get your math done after you read. Yes, you may finish the chapter.”
Give a consequence for continued disrespect or disobedience. I always had a hard time coming up with a good consequence. Some things that have worked for me are fines, denial of the next request, and making it up to me. I had an app that tracked my kids’ money earned from allowance and gifts. I could deduct an amount from their account as they watched and ooh did it hurt. My kids still like money! We had a fun outing planned after my teen was disrespectful to me. He wasn’t allowed to go. You can extend this appoach by doing what Kevin Leman recommends in his book Have a New Kid by Friday. When your child doesn’t listen, the answer to their next request is no. No, you may not have candy, stay up late, or go over to a friend’s. When your child asks why, remind them of the disobedience. Stand firm even if the child does what was asked. Thank them for obeying, but make it clear that there are always consequences for not listening. Another consequence I used is “making it up to me.” I added this to telling my child that I was going to pray about a consequence for not their behavior, possibly discuss it with their father, but I assured them they wouldn’t like it. Their anxiety about the consequence was a punishment in itself. Making it up to me usually meant doing some of my work that I couldn’t do because I was dealing with their disobedience.
We want to give consequences without losing our temper. Anger tells our child that we feel out of control–the opposite of what we want to communicate. We keep our children’s respect by being firm and calm. If that’s a struggle for you, check out the Anger Antidote class at FunToLearnBooks.com.
One thing I want to make clear is that none of these consequences will instantly and for all time turn your child into an obedient little cherub. But with time, this training will have an impact. Most importantly, your commitment to training your child to listen will communicate more loudly than any words that you love your child. I remember watching an episode of Supernanny with my son. His eyes got big as he watched a young child scream and call his mom a witch with a b. I told my son that this is what he could be like if I hadn’t disciplined. Training our kids to listen ensures that our grandchildren grow up feeling loved, too.
Whether you choose to homeschool or not, my prayer is that you will take up this training. Pray for the Lord’s help and meditate on Scriptures concerning child discipline.
Have a happy homeschool week!