When your child doesn’t listen, think outside the box

Disobedient girl ignoring her mother

When you’re a pediatrician, parents tend to ask you for advice on lots of things, not just medicine.

And what Dr. April Hartman has found that parents most want to know about is discipline. Or in other words, the universal parent complaint: “How do I get my child to listen to me?”

“I call it my ‘discipline talk,’” said Hartman, who is the division chief of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

Hartman breaks discipline down into three guidelines:
  • Pick your battles. If you feel as though all you ever say to your child is, “No” or “Stop” or “Don’t do that,” you’re probably right. But that means your child is hearing mostly negative talk from you. So decide what’s really worth a “no”—most experts advise reserving that for anything your child is doing that could hurt himself or herself or another person. That includes when your child isn’t following appropriate limits or respecting others, like if your child gets upset because you can’t stay in Target so he or she can explore the toy department for another half-hour. But say your child wants to wear a crazy color combination to school? Just go with the flow.
  • Be consistent. If your child is acting in a way that’s not appropriate, be consistent in your response, even if he or she repeats the behavior again and again. We’ve all been there, but don’t give in just because it’s easier to let it go.
  • Think outside the box. “Every child learns in different ways. There’s never one thing that works for every child. So know your child and tailor the discipline to fit your child,” said Hartman.
A different way to look at discipline

According to Hartman, here are a few examples you can try:

 Use reason and logic.

Again, every child is different. But one of the first things you can try when your child is old enough is to use reason. “There’s no specific age—a four-year-old can be very mature and can understand when you reason with them,” as to why they shouldn’t be doing something, said Hartman. “Or you could have a six-year-old and swear they were three.”

For example, you can explain to your child that he or she must hold your hand when crossing the street because it’s not safe, or that your child has to wear a puddle jumper in the pool because he or she doesn’t know how to float yet.

“One way you may know they’re ready for you to use reason is when they are asking why and really listening to your answer,” said Hartman. “They’re actually trying to understand.”

Try active discipline.

While time out is a popular way to get kids to sit back, calm down and realize what they did wrong, it may not work with every child. For example, said Hartman, what if you have a child who runs around from morning to night? “You know they’re active, so making them sit still doesn’t work. They’re going to be swinging their legs or asking a million questions,” she said.

Instead, try active discipline. Your child’s “time out” could be walking up and down stairs 10 times or completing a chore, like sweeping or dusting.

Offer choices.

Choices can help kids feel empowered. So apply that to discipline. Especially when children are 9 or older, you can sit down together and make a list of five consequences for misbehavior. This can include losing a phone for a day, no TV watching or going to bed early. Then, when they get into trouble, they can choose one consequence. They’re still learning a lesson, but it’s easier to accept since they’re making the choice.

Try “token economies.”

For this tactic, Hartman suggests parents make a list of everything they want the child to do, such as picking up clothes off the floor, taking their dishes to the sink after a meal, brushing teeth or taking out the trash. Then the child should make a list of what he or she wants, such as watching a TV show or movie, having hot dogs for dinner or going to the park.

Then give each item a point value. For example, picking up clothes could earn your child three points and taking out the trash could be worth two, and they need five points in order to watch an hour of TV.

“So instead of you fussing at them to do the things you want, they can earn privileges by doing these things,” said Hartman

You can even extend it to “wants” like that cool new pair of shoes or a vacation to Disneyland. “That could be worth 1,000 points,” said Hartman. “But I tell parents it’s very important that if your child earns those points, that they follow through on making sure they get that item on the list that was agreed upon.”

This can be done with children as young as 3, although you may want to simplify it and create a star sticker chart, and for each task, your child will earn a certain number of stars that will go toward what he or she wants.

But however you decide to enact this tactic, make sure it’s in writing and that everyone in the family agrees. “The benefit of this tactic is that it teaches children negotiation and compromise,” said Hartman, “skills they will need later in life.”

Another way to do this is to agree that children need to accomplish certain tasks every day in order to earn the use of a special privilege, say a phone, for example. So your child might turn in a phone every night and will get it back the next morning if he or she completed tasks the day before. “But if you give in and give your child a phone because he or she needs to be able to call you for a ride, then this method won’t work for you,” said Hartman.

Rewarding, not punishing

The ultimate goal, said Hartman, is to reward and encourage positive behavior, rather than punishing negative behavior.

It’s also important to keep this in mind: Children may act out because they really want attention, said Hartman. “So have a scheduled time that’s sacred,” she said. “Say that hour before bedtime or those three nights a week you don’t have to work late—whatever it is, just make it predictable, that that’s our family time or our date night, so they know it’s coming. It’s quality of time, and it means so much. When a child knows they have that access and they’re a priority for a parent, they act much better.”

The Children’s Hospital of Georgia has the largest team of general pediatricians, adolescent medicine physicians and pediatric specialists, in the Augusta area. Make an appointment at or call 706-721-KIDS (5437).

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.