Most of us can agree that we value positive and open communication and aspire to foster it by the time our children enter the difficult adolescent years. However, adults usually think about communication in terms of how well our children are listening to us. But, ask yourself, how well are you listening to them? Sure, we hear them when they ask for more milk or tell us their shoes hurt their feet. When it comes to understanding how our children look at the world, things get a little hazy. Most parents won’t admit this, but we really don’t want to listen to our kids. For one, it's uncomfortable. We might hear something we don't want to hear. Or our values, assumptions, or authority might be challenged. Or we might learn something that will mean we have to change.
Changing who we are as parents is hard. But if you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know I’m all about change. It’s how we tap into our highest purpose in life,and reach our ultimate goals. And, if one of our goals is to be the best parents we can be (and I think it is), then reflecting on how we can become better listeners to our children will help get us there.
A lot of us grew up in the “children should be seen and not heard” era. The notion that children might have thoughts and ideas worth listening to was foreign. As a culture, I feel like we are moving beyond that now, thankfully. But,old habits are hard to shake, and we can easily fall into the old parenting styles in which we were raised. If you feel like you do a great job of communicating with your kids, ask yourself, what happens when they disagree with you.
It’s easy to listen when our kids are even-tempered and agreeable. But, what about the less favorable times? How well are you listening when your toddler, or teenager for that matter, is having a meltdown in the supermarket? I’ll admit, it’s tough.
But, these uncomfortable times are opportunities to learn from our children. They can be our greatest teachers, and there is a lesson for us in every meltdown. Maybe you undershot how long an errand would take. Maybe you forgot to bring snacks. (Always bring snacks.) Or maybe the things you thought you knew about your child are no longer true, because in a blink of an eye, they have grown into a whole new person. (It’s mind-blowing how fast this happens, isn’t?) And, while they may not be able to successfully articulate how they feel, they certainly know how they feel and they are trying to “express it to you.”
Assuming we know what our children think, want, or need is just ego creeping into our consciousness. Opening up to the idea that we have a lot to learn from them about their own experience takes humility. In order to truly listen, we have to actively choose to do so. Actively listening insists that you put your ego aside, and mute any thoughts that you know what’s best. It is entirely possible your child knows what is best for them. By hearing them and really seeing them, you’ll be much more equipped in navigating them to where they need to be and ultimately desire to go.
When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, she was more than ready. Watching her older siblings prepare for school every day made her excited to have a backpack of her own someday and do what the big kids did. That first week of school hit her like a steam engine. Along with all the “big kid” stuff she got to do was one very significant thing she couldn’t do anymore: nap. There are no naps in kindergarten. After school, she was surprisingly short-tempered and seemed disinterested in her favorite afternoon activities, like riding her bike or hanging out at the park. She was also ravenous.
She wasn’t aware of what was going on, so she didn’t have the words to tell me. But, when I paid attention to her body language and her behavior, it was clear. She was tired. A new school and routine took a lot out of her body. Pushing her to do the “fun” things she always enjoyed in the afternoons was too much. What she actually needed was some quiet downtime. This wasn’t something she was able to tell me with words. It was my job to listen beyond the words to figure out what her actions were communicating. As Karen Berg, my mentor, says, “Our job is not to judge another’s actions; our job is to listen beyond the words.”
How many times have you finished a sentence for your child? More times than I bet you can count. I struggled with this early on in parenting, and I think it’s natural—we spend the first 12 months or so collecting data from our infants, deciphering their every expression in order to understand what they are trying to communicate. So, when they finally begin to talk, we start off listening, but the urge to intuit what they are trying to say is strong. Without realizing it, we end up cutting them off, assuming we know what they are trying to say because they don’t have the vocabulary to say what they mean, or you are in a hurry and just want to get to the point so you can meet their needs faster.
Whatever is driving you to inhibit your child from finding their own words, set it aside. Let them find the words. This requires us to have a tremendous amount of patience and consciousness. It means holding space for the emotions that come as they try to explain themselves.
Of course, when they struggle, you can help them out by offering a word or asking clarifying questions. But, resist the temptation to complete their sentences or assume you understand how they feel. It’s easy to project our own experiences onto our kids and draw (possibly incorrect) conclusions about how they feel or what they think. Let’s look at it this way,what happens when a child is constantly refused the opportunity to share their thoughts by the time they hit adolescence? It’s no wonder so many kids give up on trying to explain themselves to the adults in their lives. When no one is really listening, what’s the point?
The next time you are given the opportunity to really listen to your child, embrace it—no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. Our children are mirrors the Creator has placed in our lives so we can clearly see what we need to change. Every flaw we perceive in our child is pointing to an aspect of ourselves that requires work. Every story we avoid listening to contains a message we need to hear, and an issue that needs to come to our attention. Becoming better listeners makes us better parents. After all, there is only one way to get inside your child’s head and understand things from their perspective: be all ears.