J-K-L: Just Keep Listening
No matter what, we must listen to our children – actively and closely. And that’s not easy sometimes. For our little ones speak a different language than we grown-ups do. They speak in metaphors, symbols, behavior, and animalese! Children’s language consists of imagination, wishing, hoping, whining, crying, tugs and yelps, aches and pains, ghosts and monsters, candy castles and magic lands.
So how do we listen well when we don’t speak the language? Listen actively first. Get down to the child’s level physically and make good eye contact. Watch their faces. Pay attention to gestures and other body language. Tune into yourself as you watch and listen to your child. If we’re open to active listening, our child will help us feel how they feel. Whether it is fear or sadness or anger, tune in first and then begin a conversation. It’s called empathy – experiencing the situation from the other person’s point of view.
Empathy is how we effectively listen to our children and it is how we teach our children to listen to others. If we model active listening for our child, s/he will use it with others. There’s no moment quite as lovely as the first time a parent sees his/her child reach out to comfort or support another person who is having a hard time. That moment of kindness bodes well for the future of the child, the family and the larger culture. For active listening lays the foundation for the development of effective communication skills based on respect and mutual cooperation. The older our children get, the more important communication becomes.
All parents are concerned about protecting their children from adult information about sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, crisis, trauma, and violence. Inappropriate information is everywhere: billboards, television, radio, magazines, internet, video games, and social media. There’s a limit to any parents’ ability to monitor what their children experience. The earlier a parent opens the door to mutual communication about important and difficult topics, the more likely it is that children will walk through that door and have conversations with Mom and Dad.
How do we open the door and keep it open? The first step is self-honesty. Each parent must acknowledge the tough areas for him or herself. When do you clam up? What makes you go silent? What topics do you avoid? When do you over-react? What are you paranoid or neurotic about? Whatever the answers to these questions, pay attention. These will be the challenge points between you and your child as s/hr grows. Don’t wait until his/her adolescent years to start the dialogue.
Speak briefly and simply when these sensitive areas present. Start when your child is young. If you see or hear something that bugs you, offends you, something you disagree with, make a simple statement like, “Yuck! I don’t like that!” Even very young children get the message.
First, you have feelings about it, and second, you’ll talk about it. This gives your child permission to talk to you about your tough issues and his or her own tough issues. And children have a way of responding to your active listening when you least expect it. Two days, weeks, or months later, your child will ask the difficult questions or express his/her opinion. And even when it feels challenging, there is nothing quite like it.
So keep listening. From the cries of the infant to the valedictorian speech of the graduate, the time goes quickly. We must make the time to actively listen to our children. S/he will respond dramatically to being heard. Our investment in listening now will create respect and mutual cooperation in the lives of our children and the lives of others as our children move out into the world.