Raising Richmond: “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

All told, I have very few complaints about my son, JR. Save the occasional hiccup, we have a fantastic time together, and I can’t get enough of him. He’s really just a sweet, funny, and loving three-year-old boy. But good gravy, the kid cannot listen.

All told, I have very few complaints about my son, JR. Save the occasional hiccup, we have a fantastic time together, and I can’t get enough of him. He’s really just a sweet, funny, and loving three-year-old boy.

But good gravy, the kid cannot listen.

Well, let me clarify that: he can listen, and sometimes even does, but a lot of the time, he just…won’t. At least not right away and not without parental persuasion.

There was a time when I genuinely thought he might have a hearing problem. I see now that my initial reaction was due to your typical case of a new mother refusing to admit that her child’s less-than-desirable behavior was the result of him being, you know, a human with—dare I say it?–flaws. So I fretted, and Googled,1 and fretted some more, until I finally realized that a kid who wakes up from a dead sleep just because I cleared my throat in the next room can probably hear just fine.2

My concern completed its transformation into deep, raw annoyance when JR developed the habit of squawking “HUH?!” after every single thing I said to him. I tried to get him to go with the more polite, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said”, but he quickly modified that into “WHAT DID YOU SAY? I DIDN’T HEAR YOU.” As you can imagine, that gets pretty old when you spend most car rides and family dinners hearing it over and over again, especially when he follows it up by half-listening as you repeat yourself, tossing in a few “huhs” here and there just to make sure he’s driven you good and crazy.

Now when I was growing up, my mother often used the phrase “selective hearing” when referring to my and my siblings’ listening skills—or lack thereof. Mom would insist she asked us to do something; we wouldn’t do it and claim no recollection of the request; she’d get royally pissed; and we’d grumble to each other about how crazy she was.

But now? I know. And I have no choice but to say it: Mom, I’m sorry. You were so right. Selective hearing is totally a thing. And it’s totally a thing that’s driving me bananas.3

JR’s selective hearing mostly manifests itself in the form of something we call “buzzwords”–words that we know will get his attention and keep him interested in what we have to say. At this point in JR’s life those words are:

  1. Spider-man
  2. Maymont
  3. French fries
  4. Mamaw
  5. Playground

For a while JR’s name4 fell on the buzzword list, but lately it’s switched to having the opposite effect. Instead of perking up at the sound of his name, his ears seem to shut off completely, particularly when the “JR” is followed by “would you please XYZ?” or (as is more often the case) “would you please stop XYZing?”

When JR was younger, a simple reminder to “turn on his ears” or “be a good listening boy” did the trick and got him back on track. These days things are much more dramatic and oh-so drawn out. Typically, when he doesn’t listen or follow directions, we start with a gentle reminder (which usually involves saying his full name very slowly and clearly), followed by the threat of a time-out. Next up is following through with the time-out. Then one of three things happens:

  1. He listens and follows directions after the first run-through of actions and consequences. (This doesn’t happen often.)
  2. We go through the reminder/time-out cycle over and over again until he cries a lot but eventually listens. (I’d say this happens maybe 45 percent of the time.)
  3. We go through the reminder/time-out cycle over and over AND OVER again until he’s crying and I’ve gotten all shrieky and shouty. (This happens more times than I care to admit.)

But as frustrating as this whole thing is, I do have a glimmer of hope: JR is starting to understand that listening is something he needs to work on.

All it took was for him to hear it from someone other than me.5

On a recent Friday, I picked JR up from school, excited to hear about Show-and-Tell. You see, even though he’s pretty shy and soft-spoken in large groups, Show-and-Tell is probably JR’s most favorite thing in the world. All week long he asks if it’s Friday yet, if it’s time to go to school for Show-and-Tell. It’s quite adorable, even though Show-and-Tell really just seems to be a competition over who has the best toys.

As I pulled out of the school’s driveway that afternoon, I looked in the rear view mirror and asked JR how Show-and-Tell went; that morning he’d brought in a “VERY cool” Green Lantern toy that he couldn’t wait to show off to his friends.

Before I could even get the question out, tears spilled down his flushed cheeks and he let out a hearty (and heart-broken) wail.

“I didn’t get to do Show-and-Telllllllll!”

“What? Why not?”

“Because my teacher said I coooooooouldn’t!”

“Why did she say that, Bud?”

“She told me to stop talking when my friends were talking,” he choked out between sobs. “And I didn’t listen to her.”


That, my friends, is what you call “a teachable moment.”

I’ll admit, part of me (the part that’s kind of a jerk) wanted to rub it in a little, to bring up how we’re constantly reminding him at home about listening and following directions. But thankfully, that part of me was silenced by the knowledge of how much it SUCKS to get called out on your shit in front of other people. Plus, JR and I are cut from the same cloth; I knew he already felt bad enough about the whole thing and didn’t need me adding to his misery.

So I kept it simple.

I asked him if he understood why his teacher told him he couldn’t take part in Show-and-Tell. He said he did. I asked him if he understood why what he did was wrong. He said yes.

Then I asked him what he needed to do next time.

“I just need to listen, Mama. I need to turn on my ears and be a good listening boy like you told me.”

And there you go. Turns out he was listening after all…it just took a little time (and a decent dose of disappointment) for him to actually hear what we were saying.

— ∮∮∮ —

Even though we’ve made some recent progress on the listening front, I know it’s a continual struggle that comes standard with the whole parenting package. So tell me: what are you doing (or what you have done) to help foster good listening skills with your kids? Please share your stories and thoughts in the comments–I’d love to know what’s worked for you.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. A rookie mistake if there ever was one. 
  2. But for whatever reason, his father can stomp through the house singing along to 70s rock and the kid doesn’t stir a bit. 
  3. Motherhood hasn’t made me think my mother is any less crazy, but I completely understand why she is the way she is now. 
  4. And its numerous variations—JR…Jackson…Jackson Ross…Jackson Ross Catrow—depending on how much trouble he’s in. 
  5. Of course. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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