It's a pretty point blank question. In case you don't know what selective deafness is, here's an example:

Me: "Hey Timmy, help me carry the laundry?"

Timmy: "..."

Me: "Hey Timmy, I really could use your help; there is a lot to carry"


Me: "Hey Timmy, I just saw the ice cream truck stop outside"

Timmy: "What?! Can we go!? Can we go!?"

I don't have any children named Timmy but you get the idea. What do you do in those situations?

  • After you find the cure for this, you'll be in a good position to solve world peace. Are we talking about school age kids here, or would you like an answer for all ages?
    – Jax
    Mar 17, 2014 at 11:29
  • Any age you've dealt with will suffice. I know I had selective deafness growing up but until I became a parent, I didn't know how annoying it really was. Mar 17, 2014 at 12:36
  • 3
    You just replayed my childhood.
    – user106
    Mar 17, 2014 at 18:07

4 Answers 4


Get their attention first before you say anything else.



Until you get through to them, say nothing else. Try not to give away whether this is an icecream moment or a laundry moment. Surprise them by sometimes getting their attention with a laundry basket in your arms and saying "when I've got this laundry put away, do you want to have icecream together?"

If you can't get through to them with just their name, use a louder or sharper tone, or touch them. If they don't appear to fully engage (the grunt or yeah they learn a few years before puberty) don't start talking. Keep working on engaging them. Now if you never have anything fun on offer they will never engage, so be worth hearing at least once in a while.

Finally once you have them engaged ("look at my face!" I used to say to the kids) you can ask for help or offer the fun activity or whatever else. And make them say "no thankyou" or "I'd rather not" or "I need to finish this first" or whatever is an appropriate way to demur. (If there is no appropriate way to demur, then don't ask, tell.) You will know they heard.

  • 1
    This is a great idea. Didn't even think of trying that. Mar 20, 2014 at 8:08
  • when I've got this laundry put away, do you want to have icecream together? That being said, rewarding with food is not really the best of ideas (see this post by the University of Rochester).
    – Remi.b
    Aug 14, 2018 at 15:14
  • I wasn't suggesting rewarding with food. More like, giving clues that I am going to ask for chores, but instead saying something I might have said anyway, to make sure I am listened to even when the clues suggest I am going to ask for help with chores. But "if you never have anything fun on offer they will never engage" so whether it's ice-cream, a trip to the park, or a craft project, you need to be giving them something fun, because life is fun and as a parent you're a source of a lot of it.
    – Chrys
    Aug 17, 2018 at 16:36

Have their hearing tested?

My son was accused of selective deafness by his kindergarten teacher. Guess what, a doctor found that he was partially deaf. Blocked Eustachian tubes had filled his inner ears with liquid reducing his hearing.

After surgery, and grommets and 6 months recovery, there were still some issues. In a noisy environment, he had a hard time hearing. We had another test done (a figure-ground discrimination test) and found that his brain had a hard time processing sound when the background sound was raised.

Once you have eliminated a medical reason, then you can look for a behavioural one.

  • This is good but she does not have medical issues. We visit the otolaryngologist frequently for check ups and despite a middle ear infection every now and then, she is fine. Mar 20, 2014 at 8:10

One idea is to ask the child a question to check whether they have heard or not.

Pappa: Timmy, Can you take out the trash?
Timmy: ...
Pappa: Timmy, Can you take out the trash?
Timmy: ...
Pappa: Timmy, Did you hear what I said?
Timmy (in a perfect world): You said to take out the trash.

  • I think Bill Cosby had a skit where he tried this. It was called "Brain Damage."
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 8, 2015 at 6:53

Treat it the same way you would treat it if Timmy looked you in the eye and said "I won't do that." He is hearing you and refusing to obey - it is plain disobedience. If one of my kids was playing a game or reading a book and they pulled this trick, and I was pretty confident that they really did hear, I'd probably take their game or book away for the rest of the day. Or go over, turn the tv off or get in front of them where they can't ignore me, make them put their book down, and tell them, "do you know what you are doing? You are trying to disobey by pretending not to hear. Now you get to help carry the laundry and then do the dishes on top of it." Expect obedience and never tolerate disobedience.

I like Chrys' idea, and that should be a general parenting pattern. Our kids should love the sound of our voices. To them it should trigger thoughts of encouragement, fun, listening to their problems, words of love and affection.

Still, even so, they might try this trick. Kids test those boundaries; they have to, because they do not know how firm or what parameters the "obey" rule has. To discover what "obey" looks like, they have to run little experiments. It's up to us to make "obey" a very consistent concept; deviations not tolerated. Never say "oh, well, I'll just do it myself." That might be easier in the short run, but encourages a pattern of disobedience that will bite you hard in the long run. Once the order is given (and a request from a parent is an order), it should be obeyed.

But again, like Chrys said, the first, most important, most recurrent message our kids should be hearing from us is that we love them, enjoy them and think they are awesome. Discipline is truly effective only in that context.

  • I disagree with this answer, although probably not the spirit of it. As @dave pointed out, some kids actually do have physical hearing issues. My own child does. It would be a cruel overreaction to punish her for disobeying when I cannot be certain that she did physically hear and understand me. Even with a physically normal child (or adult, for that matter), it's perfectly normal to let someone's words run through their brain without really comprehending them unless there is an interesting word (ice-cream!) that causes them to take notice.
    – Aravis
    Oct 7, 2015 at 16:29
  • @Aravis - You are missing a lot of important points. First the OP is asking about "selective deafness" which is normally taken not to be about physical hearing problems. Second, the OP is demonstrating what he means with a conversation in which the child does not respond to requests for help but does respond to dad saying an ice-cream truck just went by. Third, sounds like this is a pattern (including the hearing things the child does want to hear). Fourth, I did preface my reaction with "if I was pretty confident that they really did hear."
    – user16557
    Oct 7, 2015 at 20:20
  • @Aravis - And it is not "normal" for a word like ice-cream to have more importance in a child's brain than an order from mom or dad. That is how much of our current day culture trains kids, tolerating disobedience, including selective hearing, so it's no wonder people run against it and have kids that hardly listen to them and rebel badly in teenage years. Kids can learn that when mom or dad say their name, that is as or more important than the word "ice-cream". Their behavior and attention should be driven by what is important, not what is "interesting".
    – user16557
    Oct 7, 2015 at 20:29

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