Should Our Children Listen to Us?

“Clean your room,” “Finish your broccoli,” “Brush your teeth” . . . the never-ending things we tell our children to do. Will our child wither away if they don’t finish their carrots? Fail at life if they don’t practice cursive? No.

In the arc of their lives, these matters are trivial. Supposedly, we know better and they should do as we tell them. But why? Why should they listen to us? What’s in it for them? They’ll earn our approval, and conform to arbitrary social convention. And this is exactly the problem.

In telling them what to do and not to do, we’re imposing our own stuff on them. We internalize social norms and our parents’ issues, then we project those onto our children. We’re imposing our biases onto them.

If we value academics, we say “finish your homework.” If we value tidiness, we say, “Put away your toys.” Into athletics? We pressure “practice with the ball, bat, racket . . .”

We are a culture that celebrates ‘doing.’ We meet someone at a party and ask, “What do you do?” We never ask, “Who are you?”

The Quest for Mini-Me?

We focus on output, measuring our children others, and ourselves by the yardstick of achievement. Our advice never ends. What’s the problem here? It’s not about our child. It’s about us. We’re preoccupied with our own needs. We want a mini-me. We look at our children and hope to see ourselves. We created thinking, feeling little beings with spirits independent of us, but we forget this fact. So badly do we want to see a reflection of us, we try to mold our children to resemble us. We get lost in our mire.

What’s the most prized, precious way of relating to our children? What should we be doing differently with them? How do we shine a light on them? What’s the single key question we should be asking?

We should crouch to our child’s level, and ask “Who are you?”

The seminal thing we should do as parents is be genuinely, authentically curious. Being curious requires us to be open. Without judgment, we’re open to everything. We don’t assume or resist, we open to the awesome possibilities: who is my son? Who is my daughter? Who is the little person? What makes her tick? What motivates him?

When she resists doing homework, what does she feel? Why doesn’t he want to go to bed every night? We should be asking questions about their ‘being,’ not their ‘doing.’

Instead of insisting our daughter eat all her peas, we can be open and curious about her experience. For example, “You don’t want to finish them?” Okay, I have an idea. Let’s play a game. It’s called an ‘experiment.’

First, let’s get a big sheet of paper or calendar and colored pencils. We’ll divide the page into sections, where each part is a separate day. On day one, you eat zero peas! On day two, you eat just one pea. The next day, you eat three peas.

In each section, we’ll draw a face that shows how you feel when you eat zero pea or one. . . . “ or ”You don’t want to go to sleep? Did I ever tell you the story of the “Princess and the Pea? Do you want to pretend to be a Prince or Princess? We’ll tuck one under your mattress and see if you can feel it at night.”

Real and Raw

The point here is that we’re real and raw with our child, engaging back and forth with genuine interest. Rather than telling them what to do and getting frustrated when they resist, we’re relaxing and being open to whatever they teach us. We’re humble, open to everything our child can teach us about who they are.

You don’t want to clean your room? Okay, here are all these faces with different expressions, e.g. angry, bored, sad, excited, sleepy, happy, surprised, etc.

Ask your son “How do you feel when I ask you to put away your toys? Point to the face that looks like how you feel. Where do you feel it in your body?”

Let’s play with arranging your room in different ways . . . let’s put your toys all over your room and let’s throw some of your underwear up in the air, bunch up your tee shirt and play ball with it . . . We’ll leave it like that overnight.

Or, do you want to leave it like this for a few days? You can tell me what it’s like for you, how you feel, and what you go through in your body. After a few days, we can pick up just one thing off the floor and let’s see what you feel.”

Should Our Children Listen to Us?

Ranjan Patel, Psy.D., MFT

Ranjan Patel, Psy.D., MFT is in private practice in the San Francisco Bay area. In addition to psychotherapy, she does mindfulness training, including meditation. She is also a certified life coach. She organizes free local monthly support groups for those living with chronic illness/pain. For more information: Find Ranjan on Facebook and Twitter.


APA Reference
Patel, R. (2015). Should Our Children Listen to Us?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Sep 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Sep 2015
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