HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Ask the Experts

My Third-Grader Won't Listen

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


I have a problem with my 8-year-old. I have to consistently repeat myself for him to do what I ask of him, whether it's getting in the shower, picking up his clothes, cleaning his room, turning off the TV, getting ready in the morning for school or getting ready for bed.

I've tried a lot of approaches. I've sat him down, talked to him face to face and asked him if he would rather wait for me to yell at him to do what I ask him. He'll say he doesn't want me to yell. I've gone as far as listing out the order of things that I need him to accomplish while we are driving home. I tell him, "We are going to go inside and the first thing I need you to do is take a shower, then after dinner, I need you to get a book so we can read.", just so there are no surprises and that I'm not repeating myself a million times.

I've stopped yelling and just started talking in a lower voice. At times I just turn off the TV to get his eyes off of it and if it's time for a shower and he doesn't get up to do it, I've changed channels to news or something else to get his attention. Sometimes I turn off the TV, and I find him turning it back on as soon as I turn my back.

How do I work with him on this problem?


Here's the good news: You are open to changing how you approach communicating with your son. No one wants to yell or be yelled out, but parenting is frustrating and sometimes we resort to it even when we know it doesn't work.

Learning is a repetitive process, and it can be difficult to remain patient. You are on the right track by choosing to lower your voice, turning off the TV when you are talking to him (so that he's not distracted) and making clear what your expectations are.

You might want to slow things down a little. Listing everything in the car is a great way to prepare before you get home, but there may be too many tasks for him to remember, or he may not learn as well with verbal instructions.

Hold a family meeting to discuss what the various rules and roles are in the household. Have him make a chart for himself of what his duties are. This can be a visual reminder that he can refer to. Let him negotiate the order he may want to do things and the times. Letting him choose allows him to feel more respected and responsible, and takes you out of the position of constantly having to be the heavy.

We learn social skills and personal responsibility by feeling positive about ourselves and our accomplishments. The more he can be involved with the process, the more motivated he'll be to do this for himself, rather than what he's now learning to do -- tune you out or defy you.

For more help: try these classics: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and any of the Positive Discipline books by Jane Nelsen et al.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"I have been uplifted to read so many other mothers are having the same problems with 8 yr. olds. It is very frustrating to repeat something over and over day after day. when will it ever sink in. its so much easier for everyone if they would just except the fact that a parent is asking them to do something and it is their job to follow the directions they are being asked. I have tried rewards, no good, tried the punishment, no good, tried talking normally, no good. They just tune you out. Nothing seems to faze him in differently or in any way. Is there an answer and will it improve some day? "
""My 8yr old son is beyond determined to do what he wants in his own time. I have to tell him to do things repeatedly to the point where I am tired of saying everything. I say Stop it! every 5 minutes that he is awake. I am exhausted and at my wits end. He is truly being an unruly child nowadays. Lying, stealing, sneaking into things. I have tried positive reinforcement, timeouts, groundings, taking away possessions, writing apologies, changing my work schedule. My hair is falling out and I have lost 20lbs from the stress. I am running out of ideas but I refuse to give up on my son." "
"I have a daughter who is 9 and she has lost all motivation to doing what I ask her to do till she wants too. She turn her listening ears off, doesn't want to bathe, shower, do her homework, doesn't brush her teeth, or take care her hygiene as often as I would like and she doesn't like to study so, her grades have went down tremendously. She is very argumentative what should i do. i am at my wits end... "
"I have a 9 tear old son and he seems like sometimes he don't care about what's going on in the classroom he has to be told a number of times what to do at home also, and sometimes I just don't know what to do!"
"I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one going through these things with my now 9 year old son. What has been expressed and tried here are basically identical with what I am experiencing."
"I took the class how to talk so your kid will listen. sometimes they listen ,but not always especially when they are over tired and their Dad and I are separated right now, which makes it even more difficult."
"We give our son a few minutes to unwind after school. He has 10 minutes to have a snack and drink before he starts his homework. And he knows there is absolutely no TV until his homework is done. It helps if the TV is off when he arrives home from school."
"I think that was great sound advice and I also find that it works wonders for my son."
"I think it's the age. Children are so busy at 8. Their imaginations are in full swing. They're in or around 3rd grade, taking on more responsibility, getting a feel for a little more independence. It's an amazing time. My 8 year old son has the same traits. He's a straight A student. Claims to be bored with school (and, he very well may be), but socially, he's where an 8 year old needs to be. Homework is a real issue for us. (So are meals, activities, etc.) Not because he's a rotten kid, on the contrary, he's a dream come true. He just seems to have his own agenda. I've learned to compromise. I've learned that instead of fighting to be on time for his after school activity (or arrive early as I prefer), if he chooses to be late, I've let him be embarrassed walking into class late, just because it was his choice. Sometimes they need to experience what the rush is all about. Once that happened, and he felt embarrassed, I can say that momentarily, he expressed a satisfaction at being singled out and the focus of attention, but now, I don't have to ask him twice to get ready. To address homework, the first thing we do after school is to decide if he'll start on homework immediately or at 6:00. (If it's a lighter load, I'll concur that later is okay). He chooses the order, and it gets done. When I ask about dinner/snack or pretty much anything else that is not his top priority, I always make sure the tv is off, that we are sitting in our 'discussion place' (Daddy's usual couch when he's home - my son sits in Dad's spot, so he feels more authoritative, perhaps), and I ask the question. Then, I ask that he repeat whatever we've decided in complete sentence format and ask if there are any questions. Never plan too far in advance. Their minds are so busy, it just doesn't make sense unless you enjoy being upset. Prioritize. Use one-hour blocks. (Maybe half hour blocks to start off with)and graduate to an hour. It seems difficult, but once you're used to it, it becomes second nature. We're moving up to 1 1/2 hour blocks now. I make frequent reminders of things that need be addressed in order of importance. Try it!"
"I also have the same trouble getting my 9 year old son to do what I ask of him in a timely manner. Doing homework can take up to 2 hours because he asks for a drink or needs to stretch or wants a popsicle or needs to use the restroom last night it was all of the above. Then he has to read 20 minutes each night and he wants to use the antenna of a remote control truck to use as a pointer. It has become a nightly ordeal. I remind him that if we could finish in one hour or less he could have some TV time, but it doesn't seem to motivate him. Whats a mom to do."
"I am not alone! I have learned no TV ever in the morning, and now have learned to stop yelling. I will look for the books you suggested...and thank you for publishing this email Excellent Advice!"