Tell me about it
Updated: Mar 11
You know what I am talking about: you ask your kid about his day and you get a shrug or a mumbled monotone one-syllable response, two if you’re lucky. Really? This is why we are sending our kids to school? This sort of eloquence they can achieve without any additional school, am I right? If your spouse is anything like mine, he too comes home from work, socialized-out, and just wants to be with his own thoughts for a while. It can be hard to connect as a family when we are just DONE by the end of the day.
Seriously, there is more to the day, and more to your kid’s and spouse’s (and your) response. You just have to finesse it out of them. And just like you can convince them when they are younger that you are indeed all-seeing and all-knowing (“How did Mom know I ate the last cookie behind the sofa?!”), you can convince them all that it is still cool to tell Mom/spouse all about what happened in school/work that day.
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.
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.
A couple of things:
You look like you might have something on your mind. Want to share? Or would you rather I share about my day first, and then you can go. First, you have to become a bit of a mind-reader. Not like truly develop ESP or anything, but watch your kids and your spouse. They will give you an indication when they are ready to talk about their day (or whatever else). This is as important for the ‘How was your day?’ as it would be for those BIG talks about topics that are intimidating and personal. If you can see the one-foot-at-school/work shutters still in place, your attempts at communication are going to fall flat and leave you frustrated.
Who wants to have a race? Let’s see who can fold the best napkin animal. Second, give your kid/spouse time to just be after school or work Especially my middle one, he needs a bit of him-time, where he sits with a book, or plays with a soccer ball, or just meanders around outside. Once he’s had that time to process the day for himself, he’ll be ready to share. He’ll come up and ask for a snack, and be ready to chat and share. He needs that time before homework, too, just to decompress and get things figured out for himself. Some kids might not need any time at all, and others, might need well past dinner. As unique as the stories they love to share, same goes for the mental relaxation needs. Often spouses don’t get that kind of downtime to regroup before they are hit by the home scene. I’m fortunate and get to have a few minutes to just be before kids are home and unloading. If a working spouse gets home in the middle of a scene that is already rolling, they don’t get the chance to decompress; they just have to figure out the best way to merge into the chaos, and that can be exhausting day after day. Give them a break, and distract the kids for a few minutes, before the onslaught hits them.
Hi, honey, how was your day? Third, figure out what opens their mouths. Is it a question about what their friends had for lunch? Or who they sat with? Is it an inquiry about which recess game they played? Can you ask them about which sport they played in PE or how their French test went? Did one of their friends have a fun shirt on? Ask questions that begin with ‘what’ or ‘who’ and require a concrete answer will be much more likely to get a response and start a conversation than might an open-ended inquiry or a ‘why’ question. Kids can begin to feel a little defensive if they are asked too many why questions before they are ready (yet, I know, the reverse doesn’t apply; they can ask as many as they would like before you first cup of coffee and you have to answer them…). The same thing applies for your spouse. I know there is always a positive interaction with at least two or three people at work; it’s a safe place to start, asking about those interactions and likely the conversation will go from there.
I hear you. That sounds really frustrating. Fourth, and this is a biggie: don’t give advice. Don’t try to fix, or give solutions. Just listen. If they ask, go ahead, but tread lightly. This is not what the conversation is about. This is about them sharing their day with you, not about you fixing whatever social tic their best buddy displayed today at recess or in the hall at work. This is probably the hardest thing for folks like me, because I am a fixer, and I love helping people and there is no four people on this planet I want to help more than my kids and hubby. But. I can’t always do that. And, in fact, I am doing them an injustice if I try, because part of growing up, part of getting more mature is doing things for yourself, and figuring out your own solutions. So, even if I think I know a better or more efficient or whatever way to do the thing, I keep my trap shut. Other than the oh-yes-I’m-listening noises so my kids know I am tuned in. As for ‘fixing’ things for my hubby, well, that’s not really my place either. But I am a good sounding board, and that is often the best ‘help’ I can offer.
Give me 5 seconds to send this email and then I am all yours. Fifth, be present for the conversation. 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. Then, when you are ready, put the phone down. Don’t text. Don’t answer the phone. Your #1 important person is about to tell you about what they consider to be important about their day. And yes, it may be about the color of crayon they chose to draw their dragon, but you know what? To them, that is important. So now it’s important to you, too. So ask them about it. Regardless of the age of the person standing in front of you, the gift of your undivided attention will make them feel better, I promise.
I respect your privacy; thank you for sharing that with me. Sixth, respect their confidence. If they tell you something – especially something big like a crush or about a friend or the like – don’t pass it on. This is a very important present that your child has given you. This is their way of tell you that they love you enough to share this BIG thing with you, but they also don’t want everyone to know. Maybe they don’t even want your spouse or partner to know. You should feel honored that they trust you enough to share; if you don’t keep their confidence, I can guarantee it will not happen again.
I hear that it’s been a bad day. Maybe you can tell me about it later. I’ll be ready to listen when you are ready to talk. Seventh, know that it isn’t always going to work. Sometimes, your kid or spouse is going to be angry (maybe at you, or at someone else) but having that conversation isn’t going to work just then. Sometimes, the words just don’t come. Sometimes, whatever happened is too big to describe. Sometimes, they want to keep it to themselves. Know that this will happen, and it isn’t meant to hurt you. It’s a sign that your kids are growing up, and you are not all-knowing any longer. I know, ouch, right? As for your spouse, some work things are too touchy or complicated and if you don’t have the whole picture, telling you a small part is just going to be more frustrating. Let them know you are there, when and if they need you; you can offer your support without them actually giving you all of the details.
I know you’re hurt. When you’re ready to talk about what is really bothering you, I am here. Eight, hurtful words may be about something bigger than you. Don’t respond with more of the same. Your child may be hurting and angry. Someone wronged them, they feel, and it is more than they know what to do with. They may lock it up inside, and suffer in silence, or (more likely) they will lash out at someone safe, someone they know will love them even if they say or do horrible things. This may be a sibling, but more than likely, it’s going to be a parent. What do you do? Don’t respond by putting more hurt in their heart. Just let them say what they need to say, and ask them if they feel better having said it. Ask them if they have more. Ask them if they want to talk about what really is hurting them because you know it isn’t you. And if that doesn’t work, grab your angry-probably-flailing-about child, and hug them. This isn’t the time to send them to their room, or punish them for being mean, because your little guy’s heart is hurting. They lash out at someone safe because they feel they cannot lash out at the person who really caused the hurt. Same goes for your spouse, especially if their true source of frustration is a boss. They can’t yell at the boss in frustration, can they? Try to give them the sympathy they very likely need and aren’t feeling at work.
Look, we’re stuck in traffic. We might have some extra time to kill while we wait to move again. Nine, sometimes distance helps make the heart grow fonder and the mouth grow bolder. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my eldest are with him in his seat in the way back of the van, and me driving. Why? I don’t know. He’s safe, I can’t actually look at him. He can talk about whatever and knows I’ll listen. He has a captive audience. I don’t know, but it works for him. Works for my hubby, too. When we go for a walk or a run, and have to watch the pavement in front of us, the conversation flows easily.
And ten, sometimes the words to tell about one’s day come easier on paper than out-loud. I share a journal with my eldest. He doesn’t write in it every day, but every so often, when he has something he wants to tell me that perhaps is hard to get out, he’ll write it in his journal, and slip it on my pillow. I can read and respond in like fashion. Again, it isn’t my place to solve his problems, just to know I am listening (or reading, as the case may be).
Do this every day. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you get in the habit of doing this when your kids (are younger, they grow up knowing you are there for them – no matter what – they will continue to come to you through those teenage years we parents all fear and beyond. 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. Same for your marriage/partnership; if you make a habit of connecting in some fashion that works for both of you in the beginning of your relationship, then that habit will grow strong throughout the years. Asking about your favorite people’s day isn’t just an afterthought, it’s an important channel for communication. During the school year, your child will spend perhaps even more time at school than he will at home. Your spouse is likely at work more than at home. You are no longer the sole point of influence; it’s good to know what else is going on.