You Can Teach Your Children to Be Better Listeners

By Susan K. Perry

Better Listener“How many times have I told you that?”

“Weren’t you listening?”

“Pay attention!”

In many households, sentences like these are heard all too often. The skill of listening is much more crucial, and usually given much less positive attention, than it deserves. After all, listening accounts for more than half of the communication activity in the workplace, according to the International Listening Association, as well as playing a major role in our personal and social lives. Those who listen well learn more effectively and have better relationships throughout their lives. We learned to hear as infants, but anyone can learn to listen better.

You can teach your child to listen carefully by being a good listener yourself. The modern drive to multitask often gets in the way of genuine listening. For starters, stop what you’re doing and face your child when she is speaking to you, rather than only giving her half your attention. Try to minimize the distractions in your home (such as a radio or TV that’s always on) to make listening less of a struggle.

The following games (ages are only rough estimates) can help children develop their listening skills and are lots of fun:

For Ages 2 to 5

Simon Says – The rule for this classic children’s game is simple: the leader gives instructions, but followers can only obey if the order is preceded by “Simon says.” Thus “Simon says ‘hop on one foot’” should be obeyed, but “Touch your nose” should be ignored. Try making silly suggestions to your preschooler, such as “Simon says ‘stick your tongue out at me.’” As your child gets better at listening well, start complicating the instructions, such as, “Simon says ‘tap your left elbow with your thumb two times.’”

Sound It Out – Have your child face away from you. Now make a familiar sound, such as clapping your hands, knocking on the wall or wrinkling some paper. Can your child identify each sound? Now try clapping out a very simple pattern and see if your child can replicate it without turning around. Then say a single word – it’s harder to recognize a word out of context – and have your child repeat it to you. For example, say “whisper,” “book” or “toy.” Older kids can be asked to identify less obvious sounds, such as some pebbles being dropped on the floor, the jingling of keys or the winding of a toy. Move something across the floor or bang something. Can your child figure out exactly what you did?

Sound It OutWhat’s New? – Wherever you are, ask your child to tune in to new sounds, as well as new sights. What can he hear at the zoo that he wouldn’t hear at home? At the supermarket? On the way to preschool? At Grandma’s? In a museum? 

For Ages to 7

Silly Sentence – Tell a one-paragraph story to your child, and include one nonsensical sentence in it. Either make it up or read one from a book, changing one sentence as you read. Ask your child to point out the impossible sentence to you when he hears it. For example: “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Inside the pail was a whale. Jack fell down and hurt himself and Jill picked up the pail and took it home.”

Map It – Divide a sheet of paper into four squares. Tell your child you’re going to give her directions and she is to follow them carefully. See how accurate she can be. For example: “Mark an X in the top left square of your paper. Now put an O in the bottom left square. Draw a blue flower in a corner of the top right square.”

Be My Echo – You and your child face one another. One of you is the speaker, the other is the echo. The speaker talks for one minute (clearly and distinctly!), while the echo attempts to repeat her words while she’s still talking. Then switch positions or suggest that two siblings or pals play.

Where Am I? – Next time you’re in a car or bus, ask your child to close her eyes and see if she can identify where she is by sound (and vibration) alone. Have her discuss what she hears aloud: a busy street, a fire engine, some railroad tracks you’ve gone across. Can she make use of these clues to get some idea of her location?

Ages 7 and Up

Just a Rumor – Sometimes called “Telephone,” this old game is excellent for teaching good listening skills, as well as showing how we don’t always hear what we think we heard. It’s best with several players, but even two can play. The first person whispers a sentence into the ear of the next person, then that person passes along what she thinks she heard (or whispers it back into the ear of the other person, if only two are playing). After a few turns, one of you who didn’t originate the sentence says it aloud, and the one who made up the sentence announces what it started out as.

If several children are playing, an adult can give the first person in the group a piece of paper on which is written a very short story (under 200 words), perhaps about an accident. The first person reads the story to herself, then tells what she can remember to the next person, who repeats what she heard, and so on. Compare the last person’s rendition with the original written version.

Aural Treasure Hunt – Hide the pieces of any kind of puzzle throughout the house (making notes for yourself). Then speak the following directions to help your child locate the parts one by one: “Walk over to the window and look behind the left curtain. Now turn around to your left and take 10 steps. Look under the biggest red book on the second shelf. Turn right and stretch on tip-toes to reach the top of the fifth shelf.” And so on. Eventually, your child will have all the parts necessary to complete the puzzle. The puzzle could be the treasure, or a completed puzzle could earn some small reward.

Sound Effects – Just as filmmakers sometimes do unusual things to create the effects in the films we watch, have your child experiment to see what he can do to imitate certain sounds. For example, what can he do at home to imitate the sound of a car, or of wind blowing through trees, a horse galloping or guns shooting? He might like to tape-record some sounds to see if you or another child can guess what they represent.

Impersonations – Have your child listen to a politician or a celebrity – or ask him to simply think of someone well known – and see if he can talk like that person does. He might have to lower or raise his voice, change the speed at which he talks, or in some other way indicate the uniqueness of the chosen person’s voice and manner. This exercise will encourage him to listen more closely to what makes each of us identifiable. It’s fun to see if he can get good enough at this so that you can guess who he’s impersonating.


International Listening OrganizationOffers articles, advice, quotes and books about listening. 

The Listening Walk, by Paul Showers, illustrated by Aliki, HarperTrophy reprint edition, 1993. For toddlers and preschoolers. A little girl goes on a walk with her father and hears a variety of neighborhood sounds.