An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:
My son is five and a half years old. I feed him gluten-free and wheat-free because he seems to listen better and be less hyper when he is off these foods. When he is really playing by himself, he is so engaged in his play that I can’t call to him or ask him to do anything because he doesn’t hear his name or respond. His lack of response is not out of willfulness; rather, he truly doesn’t seem to hear us. His hearing has been checked and is perfect.
Will I have to come over to him and touch him to get his attention forever? I am tired of feeling like I am talking to a three year old. At what point can I expect him to be able to transition from play to just going and doing something that I ask? Are there some children who simply need this for longer? Of course, I can see the same thing in my eight and a half year old daughter, but she can hear me and is just ignoring me.
Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:
Ariadne of Positive Parenting Connection: Children often become very immersed in their play and everything else outside of their play often seems much less important, at least in that moment. From what you have described, it’s not really likely that your children are ignoring you because they don’t care about you or what you are asking; it is more likely that they are really present in and enjoying their play. Maybe you have seen advice for us parents to live in the moment, to be truly present and take in all the little things. Well, children tend to do that with no effort at all!
Play is a child’s work. Play is how they understand and explore their world and it truly is such an important part of their development. Family obligations and daily life will certainly need to happen as well, and it’s not always convenient to interrupt what we are doing in order to get our child’s attention, but it may just be worth it to do it at least some of the time. I find it helpful to remember to “walk, then talk” to remind me to walk up close, connect, and then make my request!
With my three children, I find that if I aim to connect with them before I interrupt their play to make a request, they feel really respected and understood, and very likely to want to do whatever the task may be. Another plus is that when it’s their turn to interrupt me, they are also much more likely to excuse themselves, ask if the time is convenient, or wait just a few minutes if I’m really busy. This way, nobody is yelling through the house either – well, ideally, in any case.
What happens if you do try to engage or join your son in his play for a minute or two? How much time are you spending asking repeatedly, and could you invest a bit of that time in connecting before requesting something? Over time, you may find that you will not need to do it quite so often! Lastly, If you are looking for some independent transitions, maybe choosing a few things that can become a daily responsibility with a bit of freedom built in to make a few choices could possibly work. For example, my five year old sets the silverware for most of our meals, as this is his daily job, but he gets to decided if he sets it right when I get started cooking or while I’m bringing food to the table. The daily responsibility with built-in flexibility gives him a sense of capability and belonging while still feeling like he can make some decisions about his time and when to interrupt his play.
Darcel of The Mahogany Way: In the realm of ages and stages, five and a half years is still young. You will not have to do this forever, but probably as long and as often as he needs it. Like you said, he’s absorbed in his play and would probably go on and on if you didn’t get his attention to eat, ask a question, and so on. Some children require this kind of TLC for longer periods of time. Think of the times you’ve been so engrossed in a book, movie, or conversation with someone and you didn’t hear your children or someone else calling you. It wasn’t until they physically touched you or were right in your face that you realized you were being called. Now think of the times the person calling you approached you very annoyed that you didn’t hear them, and another time the person gently let you know they had been calling you. Think of how you felt each of those times.
I get your frustration, as my children are two, five, and eight years old. I’m constantly going into the room they’re in, touching them, or looking them in the eye to get their attention. Sometimes I call to them quite loudly from the other room because I feel like I shouldn’t have to keep going to get them, speaking particularly of my older two. When you think about it, however, it feels really nice to the person receiving your message when you come to them and get down on their level to speak or ask them to do something. When I’m calling to my five year old from another room and she finally hears me, her response is often, “Mom, I didn’t ever hear you calling for me! I was playing.”
I notice my kids hear me a lot better when we’re face-to-face rather than across the house. The truth is, that’s what they need right now. As parents, it’s our job to meet their needs as best as we can. Yes, it’s frustrating, but he will eventually outgrow it. In the meantime, you’ll need to keep going to him, touching him, looking him in the eye, and then talking to him until he’s older and doesn’t require that kind of action from you anymore.
Jessika of Natural Mother Magazine: In marriage counseling, I was taught that I must touch my husband before talking to him, as many people (males in particular, perhaps), respond better to touch. My suggestion is to go tap your son on the shoulder, wait for eye contact, and say, “In ten minutes I am going to ask you to come to the table for lunch. I will be back in ten minutes. Okay?” Then wait for him to respond by saying something like, “Okay.” We have to take into consideration that when we demand a child do something while they are busy with something else, it does interrupt them, and it does show a certain lack of respect from us. Giving fair warning is justified and also gives the child time to prepare to stop what they are doing.
Amy of Presence Parenting: As a mother of five, I have definitely asked myself the same questions. Another one worth asking is this: “How do I want to look back on this situation in five minutes, five months, or even five years?” Why ask myself this question in the face of trying to figure out how to get a five year old to listen? Because it will inform my answer greatly.
If I choose to respond to the situation from the frustration I feel, I may not create the results I desire: a connection between my daughter and myself that fosters listening, understanding, and response. At the same time, if I ignore or stuff away my frustration, I am only complicating the situation.
Pay attention to how you feel. Notice your breath and body. Breathe deeply into the sensation, allowing it some space to circulate through your body. See if you can decipher both what your feelings are speaking to you and what you want to come of these moments where your children seem to not be hearing you. What are you bringing to the situation and how can you positively model and influence them to connect and listen when it’s important? For example, can you make it a point to respond when they come up to you asking for something? Can you listen deeply when they share something with you?
Also, here are two factors to consider as you choose how to handle this challenge in your parenting experience:
Children learn to tune out or not respond to certain tones and ways of parenting. Some children are more sensitive and responsive in this way than others, but as humans we all have this capacity. We just don’t want to interact with people when they are not coming across in a way that feels good or right to us. In this case, the way we approach our children when we are intending to connect makes a huge difference in how they will respond. Clarifying our intentions can help us both connect more meaningfully and move through the challenges more smoothly. For example, if I notice I am feeling frustrated about my child not responding, I can ask myself the question, “what is important right now?” If it is important to encourage my child to do something, am I also willing to notice how I am breathing and speaking, lower my voice and clarify my tone if helpful, and bring to mind the desired result (instead of focusing intently on how my child is resisting)? Yes, this takes practice, but any worthwhile skills generally do and these are a big help in parenting.
In The War of Art, a book by Steven Pressfield about breaking through blocks to win inner creative battles, he comments, “It is commonplace among artists and children at play that they’re not aware of time or solitude while they’re chasing their vision. The hours fly. The sculptress and the tree-climbing tyke both look up blinking when Mom calls, ‘Suppertime!'”
How does this apply to the situation you are experiencing? It’s not just about three or five year olds; some people just get really into what they are doing and benefit from a respectful, clear connection or motivation to move to the next task. In a child’s case, this connection often comes through the parent. That’s all, really. If you accept that your child may be this way forever, does it soften your approach any? Can you work with it and move through the frustration you feel to connect in a way that will work for both of you? Get down to eye level, touch lovingly if helpful, ask for what you need and trust that you two can nurture a collaborative connection, one experience at a time.