Abstract It is generally believed that both sensory immaturity and inattention contribute to the poor listening of some children. However, the relative contribution of each factor, within and between individuals, and the nature of the inattention are poorly understood. In three experiments we examined the threshold and response variability of 6–11 y.o. children on pure tone frequency discrimination (FD) tasks. We first confirmed that younger children had both higher thresholds and greater within- and between-listener variability than older children and adults. Higher thresholds were mostly attributed to high response variability due to poor sustained attention. We next compared performance on the auditory FD task with that on visual spatial FD. No correlation was found between the thresholds or variability of individuals on the two tasks, suggesting involvement of modality-specific attention. Finally, we found lower thresholds for 8–9 y.o. children performing auditory FD training in a classroom than in the laboratory, possibly due to training session length or to a more familiar, motivating and focussed training environment. The adult-like performance of many younger children at times during their testing or training, together with the high response variability of immature performers, suggested that most elevated FD thresholds in children are due to inattention.