How many times each week do our kids try talk to us and we aren’t truly listening? Whether your toddler is calling to you across the dinner table, or your teen is hinting he needs advice about dating, are you tuned-out or tuned-in? We all forget to tune in. Maybe we’re busy on Facebook, or maybe we’re working on something with a deadline. Or perhaps we’re just daydreaming. Or we assume we know what’s being said, and form a conclusion without being certain.
Kids of all ages want to be heard by their parents. Little moments of check-in provide them connection and guidance. But we get busy. There’s never much time to stop and listen, even when we believe that listening to our kids is vital to the task of good parenting.
When she was not half way through third grade, my daughter struck up a conversation with me while I wasn’t really listening. The two of us were having lunch alone. She said she was having trouble with a new classmate, that the girl was being a bully. I half-heartedly offered advice, assuming I knew what was happening, “Just ignore her, Sweetie,” and I returned to my distractions. Little girls can be bossy. No big deal.
She (uncharacteristically) erupted in sobs and tears.
What followed was an important discussion I needed to hear. She said, “Kids break rules or act rude all the time. I can handle that. But this is different. She doesn’t act like other kids. This is confusing. This is too hard for me figure out.” And then she followed with, “Teachers don’t listen. They don’t help us. They just tell us to work it out. Grown-ups never listen to kids.” My daughter and her friends had tried to approach the teachers on their third grade team and ask for help, and each time they were brushed off in the same distracted way that I had done. So they went to their parents and got the brush off again.
I realized that if I failed to listen this time, that if I didn’t listen well to what felt overwhelming to her, she might not come to me next time. Third graders don’t face many things they can’t handle and it probably would have worked out okay, but what would she learn about the value coming to me? Was she likely to try again when she was thirteen, or twenty-one? And what would she assume about how I valued her? Did this conversation show her that her worries are important to me?
Tips for Tuning-in:
• Put down what you’re doing, even if only for a few minutes.
• Make eye contact.
• Be truly curious about what your child wants you to understand.
• Let go of your previous expectations and your assumptions, and know that you don’t know.
• Wonder what it’s like to feel what s/he is feeling.
• Find him/her fascinating.
• Say to yourself, “This conversation is important because…”
• Let the interaction run its course before you go back to your previous activity.
Listening to our kids ensures they receive guidance when life throws them problems above their level to solve. Listening ensures that they know to whom they can reach out. Our listening assures them they have valuable things to say and that they are valuable to us. And aren’t those things we want them to know?