Tune in ... and listen up
“Children will listen to you only after they feel you have listened to them.” Jane Nelsen Positive Discipline
How are your listening skills? When someone is speaking to you, are you fidgeting like your 5 year-old, waiting for your turn to speak? Do you have your eye on your phone, waiting for the ping of an incoming text or email? Are you doing something else with your hands while your child is telling you a story? Oh, I know you’re busy. We all are. It is ever so hard to get everything done in the day; there is always at least two other things waiting for you. Even when we are fortunate enough to have household help like a housekeeper or (maybe even better) an actively involved partner, it is still hard to get everything done in the day. We have work, we have errands, we have chores, we have cooking, we have lunch prep for the next day, we have homework to chase down and pets to take care of … oh, and if an extra thing gets tossed onto your plate like a car issue, a doctor’s visit, or having to go pay a bill in person … it just adds to the already towering – and teetering – list of things to do. But you know what? Your child has something to say, and they deserve for you to listen. Listen with undivided attention and concentration. You know why? Because they love you, and respect your opinion and you matter. And that’s enough reasons.
So, let’s ask again: how are your listening skills?
Pay careful attention to what your child is saying. Children want to know that you are really listening and that you are interested in hearing what they have to say.
Active, respectful listening is one of the most crucial tools you have when communicating with your kids. It is often far less important WHAT you say as what you HEAR. Your kids need to know that you will not just listen to what they are saying, but also hear what they are trying to communicate; oftentimes, that communication is unspoken, or between-the-lines. So your listening skills also have to enable you to be able to hear what they are NOT saying. Learn to observe body language, to ask questions, to check for understanding and to give neutral responses. Don't interrupt your child when she is talking to you. Sometimes an interruption – however brief – is all that it takes to derail their stream of thought and the moment will be lost. So, focus on them, focus on what they are trying to tell you. Demonstrate genuine, loving interest.
Active listening is a skill, and just like other skills, it can take practice and patience to be good at it. If you are out of practice, it’s okay. Just try, every day, to tune in. Repeat back to your kids what you hear, and focus on what they are saying. Look at them when they are talking. Focus on the parts of active listening, and soon it will become second nature. And once it is, your kids coming to talk to you will become second nature, too. Isn’t that what this is all about, after all? Remember that your kids are learning from your actions, too. They aren’t just learning that you are a good listener; they are also learning good listening skills by watching you practice yours. The world can use a few more good listeners.
You know, sometimes, it really is just a bad time. That happens, and it is okay. If you really are busy, in the middle of something that can’t wait, and cannot take the time to listen, don’t pretend; be honest and let your child know, and be sure to also let them know when you can provide them your undivided attention.
Have you ever seen those families where the teenaged kids are happy to be around their parents and conversation is flowing? That can be you, but it takes setting the groundwork early on, like when the kids are 3 and 5 (and even younger than that). Because at 3 and 5, they are learning what it is to have someone actively listen. They are learning what it is to have someone tune in …. And tune out. They are developing their habit of who they will come to with their all-important stories. If the response they see from you over and over is disinterest or ‘too busy’, they will go elsewhere for the attention they are seeking. And it will be a much harder task to retrain them to come back.
Tune in from day one. Your kids are amazing people. Listen to what they have to tell you. They are imaginative, creative and smart. They are YOUR kids, and they have interesting things to share. So listen up.