Better Listening

The Most Overlooked Reason Why Kids Won’t Listen

Inside: Learn the most important (and overlooked) reason why kids won’t listen, focus or sit still. Plus, get 25+ ways to help your kids build these important life skills.

My son climbed to the top of the monkey bars and snaked across them from above. He’s not strong enough to swing across arm-to-arm, so his solution is to catapult his legs up, pull his entire body on top of the bars, and slither across.

A mom walked up to me. “Your son’s on top of the monkey bars. Just thought I’d let you know so he doesn’t fall and get hurt.”

Shortly after, two kids walked up and said, “He’s on top of the monkey bars! He’s going to get hurt.”

Related: 2 Year Old Not Listening? Try This Remarkable Tip

It happened in other situations, too.

When I took my two kids to a Merry-Go-Round, and let them have it as I sat on a picnic bench watching from afar, parents and kids alike voiced their concerns.

Learn the most important (and overlooked) reason why kids won't listen, focus or sit still. Plus, get 25+ ways to help your kids build these important life skills.

“Someone is going to break their arm over there!” 

“She’s going to fall and get hurt.” 

“He’s spinning, and he’s going to get sick.” 

Same thing when people saw my kids hanging upside down (per their own doing) for several minutes at a time.

“All the blood is rushing to his head. It’s gonna make him sick.” 

“That’s too dangerous!” 

Or when people saw my kids twisting and spinning around on a swing.

“Someone is going to get their fingers pinched!” 

“That’s not safe. Put your bottom on the swing.” 

The bigger issue occurred — for other parents — when my kids did these things and their children wanted to join in the “dangerous” activity. This is a common thread I see at playgrounds and when talking with parents I work with through parent coaching.

Related: How to Build Listening, Improve Cooperation Using a Printable Daily Schedule for Kids

Here’s the problem: Why kids won’t listen.

Children’s ability to move and play are being restricted more than ever. We are trying to protect them by saying “No climbing,” “No running,” “No spinning,” “That’s too dangerous,” and “Get down from there!”

Learn the most important (and overlooked) reason why kids won't listen, focus or sit still. Plus, get 25+ ways to help your kids build these important life skills.

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However, research shows that the drastic decline in “risky” outdoor play in kids is creating behavior problems. By constantly hovering over kids, restricting their movement, and diminishing their time to play, we are causing more harm than good.

“According the to American Academy of Pediatrics (2013), a recent study show that the average child spends eight hours a day in front of screens (television, video games, computers, smart phones, and so on). Older children and adolescents are spending an average of eleven hours a day in front of screens.” (Hanscom 2016).

That’s a huge amount of time spent in front of screens, which provide little to no proprioceptive or vestibular input (which I’ll talk about in a second). In prior generations, this time was spent outdoors or in play.

This is the important part.

In order for kids to listen, focus and learn to sit still for a period of time, they must develop both proprioception and vestibular sense. The most critical time to develop a child’s proprioception and vestibular sense is before age six.

With all the time spent in front of screens and telling kids to sit still, avoid climbing, and stop jumping, it’s not surprising why kids won’t listen.

Proprioception is what tells you where your body parts are without having to look at them. This is the sense that helps you make sense of gravity. It’s the reason you can switch from the gas pedal to the brake without looking at your feet, or bring popcorn to your mouth without taking your eyes off the movie screen.

Without properly developed proprioception, kids can push too hard during tag, fall out their seat at the dinner table, or trip while walking up stairs. (You’ll see this a lot in toddlers as they develop proprioception, but you should see it less and less in kids ages four, five, six and beyond).

Vestibular sense provides information about where the body is in relation to its surroundings. This is the sense that helps you understand balance, and it connects with all the other senses.

When the vestibular system does not develop properly all other senses will struggle to function properly. Without a strong vestibular sense, kids will have no choice but to fidget, get frustrated, experience more falls and aggression, get too close to people when talking, and struggle with focusing and listening. Because they literally cannot help it.

Related: How to Handle Back Talk Like a Parenting Warrior

Helping your kids.

In order for kids to learn to listen, focus and follow directions as they grow, they need to develop proprioception and vestibular sense by experiencing many physical challenges during childhood.

Without it, kids can’t pay attention in school because they are too distracted by their own bodies. Putting clothes on, trying new foods, and finishing homework become insurmountable tasks when kids don’t have a strong vestibular sense or well-developed proprioception.

Study after study shows that kids today desperately need more physical activity. “John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, suggests that people think of exercise as medication for ADHD. Even very light physical activity improves mood and cognitive performance by triggering the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, similar to the way that stimulant medications like Adderall do.” (source)

Angela J. Hanscom, author of Balanced and Barefoot and pediatric occupational therapist, recommends getting your kids outside as much as possible. Ideally, kids of all ages should get at least three hours of free outdoor play daily.

While I’m not certain if her age-based recommended times are realistic or not, they are as follows:

  • Toddlers → At least five to eight hours of active play per day, preferably outdoors
  • Preschoolers → At least five to eight hours of active play per day, preferably outdoors.
  • School age → At least four to five hours of physical activity and outdoor play.
  • Adolescents → Physical activity three to four hours a day.
Here are a few ways to support your child’s vestibular sense:
  • Spinning in circles.
  • Using a Merry-Go-Round.
  • Rolling down a hill.
  • Spinning on a swing.
  • Going upside down. 
  • Climbing trees.
  • Rocking.
  • Jumping rope.
  • Summersaults or cartwheels.
  • Using monkey bars. 
  • Skating.
  • Going backwards.
  • Swimming.
  • Dancing.
  • Wheel-barrel walks.
Here are a few ways to support your child’s proprioceptive input:
  • Carrying or lifting boxes.
  • Pushing or pulling a wagon. 
  • Build a fort.
  • Rake leaves.
  • Shovel snow.
  • Pick up and put down heavy sticks.
  • Dig in the dirt.
  • Carry buckets of sand or water.
  • Give hugs.
  • Knead playdoh
  • Jump on a trampoline.
  • Chewing on something
  • Squeezing a stress ball
  • Playing Tug-O-War with a stretchy band

Related Posts: 

Let the kids live “dangerously.”

As a parent, there are many times I’ve cringed and closed my eyes to avoid watching my child spin in circles, slither across the monkey bars or swing high into the air. It’s only natural to worry that something will happen.

Learn the most important (and overlooked) reason why kids won't listen, focus or sit still. Plus, get 25+ ways to help your kids build these important life skills.

But the truth is kids know what they need. Children with healthy neurological systems naturally seek out the sensory input they need on their own. They do this without thinking about it.

When they jump, swing, spin, pick up rocks or dig in the dirt, kids are doing exactly what they need. They aren’t intentionally doing it to get hurt, act rambunctiously, worry you or get messy.

They are doing it to help themselves become safer, calmer and happier kids.

Like Dr. Tina Bryson says, “You can trust development.” Her words have never been more true.

Download your free printable.

Chances are you won’t remember all the ways to support your child’s vestibular and proprioceptive development. This printable simplifies it!

Here’s a sneak preview…

Click here to subscribe

  1. Download the checklist. Join 37,000+ parents who receive my weekly-ish tips and ideas and get the printable delivered straight to you inbox.
  2. Print. Any paper will do the trick, but cardstock would be ideal.
  3. Place it on your refrigerator. Check off the things as you go and don’t forget a thing!

Many of these ideas come from a life-changing parenting book called Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children. For more on helping your child become his or her best self, check out these amazing parenting reads…

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  1. I got to this article through Facebook share of one of my Portuguese Friends (writing from Poland, so you have the reach). As a father of two (Son is 8, and Daughter 12), I must admit, it is sometimes much easier to park them in front of TV and pretending being “responsible parent” as they only watch chosen content on Netflix or other platforms. As my Son shows some nervous ticks, we took him to many Physicians, even Psychologist and Psychiatrist. Common diagnosis was, he is completely fine, just needed somehow releasing his spare energy. Worst way of spending time for him, following they words, is watching moving content on the screens. Well. We put him to the number of activities. Some dance classes (his choice) and played more attention. It works so far.

  2. I agree w/ the article, but, unfortunately, I know more & more parents who are too afraid to let their kids engage in “risky” playful behavior, because if they get a bump on the head or a broken bone, & parents have to take them to the hospital they then face the chance a doctor may call CPS on them. Just look at videos on youtube regarding this issue. It’s rampant. Decent parents w/ zero history of child abuse living through a nightmare, because a doctor called CPS on them after their child fell, & bumped their head or fell & broke a bone. It’s no wonder we have a generation of helicopter parents these days.

  3. This article is wonderful. I have two boys and I live in Dubai. There is security everywhere, or people who work in play areas constantly telling children to stop doing ‘dangerous’ things. It doesn’t feel right. It is not a path to joy. You have defined what I was feeling, and given me clarity on the fact that I would like my children to grow up somewhere different, near a lot of wild places, and have adventures.

  4. I always decide ‘this time I will not say anything to my children’ and I end up telling them don’t fit this don’t do that be careful’. The saddest part is most of the time people make you do that. Last week I took them to a shopping mall and they were having fun when some ladies were giving me looks. I felt really bad it’s not that they were running or something. They were talking about something and laughing bit Loud you know boys how they’re usually. My boys 6.5 years and 4.5 years old are best friends so they Do enjoy together. Sometimes or I should say most of them times they give me hard time by running around and laughing or talking loud. When it’s a nap time for their baby brother it becomes a challenge for me. I don’t like telling them hey I need a pin drop silence I know they’re kids and they want to enjoy but my little one wakes up so easily with noises. Any tips pls

  5. This is probably the best article on this topic I’ve read. This sounds like an article for those who treat their kids like “museum pieces”. Now, if we could get parents to understand ahead of time (before deciding to BE a parent) these things are part of the demands of raising a child.

    Understand that there’ll be challenges and sacrifices to the potential parent. Oh, and to those who view their child as an “idol” or “royalty”, then shower them with gifts just for existing, well, there’ll be some “rewards” and rough waters ahead for you. Best thing you can spend is time WITH your child and not money ON them just to keep them outta YOUR hair. On the other side of the coin, too many folks out where given and then passed on the WC Fields method (Go away kid, ya bother me!) with their offspring, resulting in kids that raise themselves. At one point in their lives, they find themselves getting reprimanded for something they’ve “never” been taught in the first place. Lastly, it’s the “eleventh hour” parent that realized that they need control AFTER that, uh, is it age 3-6 or something? Anyway, after that window closes, good luck. It’s hit or miss depending on the situation after that. Again, great article!

  6. Wow… an awful lot of words, but yes, the nut of it I agree with. Parents don’t let their kids be active enough, and they totally over-protect them from getting hurt. Kids need to swing and jump and scrap in the dirt. They need to get cuts, bruises, skinned knees, and unfortunately yes, sometimes, they’ll get a tooth knocked out or a broken bone. But it’s either that, or keep raising them in plastic bubbles with electronic toys, which is turning them into mindless zombies. Ouor zeal to protect our kids from injury is also preventing them from growing up and developing.

  7. this is impossible unless you own a home with a backyard, no one can stay outside with toddlers for 8 hours a day!:(

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