Ask most parents about the value of listening and you’ll likely get the same answer. Listening is good, of course. Yet, this powerful tool is routinely underutilized. How often do you sit down and really listen to your children? Parents can sometimes settle into a pattern of teaching and directing, one-way communication. As difficult as it is to do sometimes, listening can reap invaluable rewards. Develop good listening skills when your children are very young, and continue to listen throughout your relationship with them.
Children perform poorly when in need. Busy parents can get so focused on daily responsibilities, they may miss festering problems or trends in their children’s behavior, especially as their children get older. Younger children share information more willingly and are not as complex in their communications or problems, and because younger children are more physically vulnerable, parents spend more time listening to them. This is a mistake. Teenagers are like toddlers, experimenting and getting burned. They, too, need comfort and guidance despite the fact they don’t ask. Listening skills become more important as your children age, in part because you are not with them as much. Listening to your older children is your primary source of feedback about how they’re doing, what they’re doing and, most importantly, who they’re doing it with. I am not saying don’t listen to your young children. I am saying don’t ever stop listening.
Children are amazingly perceptive and honest. It pays to make time to regularly talk to your children about how they feel, not just about school or themselves, but also about you. They will give you direct feedback, a sort of mommy or daddy scorecard. You may be surprised to find you don’t anticipate everything they feel. This is increasingly true as you children get older, and are more aware of the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Start talking early in their lives and it won’t be as hard to communicate when they’re teenagers.
As often as I am able, I lay on the bed with each of my children at night when I tuck them in. We just talk. We talk about whatever they want. They are not shy about directing the conversation. Some quiet talk time offers me a great opportunity to read their mood and to receive feedback about my impact in their life. It usually takes a few
minutes, but eventually we get to the stuff deep inside, the stuff that really matters. I listen intently, and then offer advice. Our conversations also give me the opportunity to explain earlier actions at a time when they may be more receptive than during an argument with their sibling or when they are being disciplined.
Simply having ears is not enough to listen effectively. Remember to “listen” with your eyes as well. Body language speaks volumes when the right words are not close at hand. A hug or gentle pat on the shoulder sends a strong message, “I love you.” Effective listening also requires you to seek out meaningful information under the most fertile circumstances. Listening is best done in a setting where the speaker is comfortable. Listen on their turf, not yours. Parents represent the establishment; hence, useful feedback may not flow easily to you. You must prove yourself as a worthy recipient of the truly important information. Mutual trust must be earned. One way to inspire trust is to take swift, constructive action based on what you hear. Over time, trust is built up, communication flows more smoothly, relationships improve and everyone is better off. A sincere and vulnerable approach may score you the first opportunity to prove yourself as a worthy listener.
Parenting is more than a full-time job. Utilize every tool at your disposal to be an effective and loving parent. Put yourself in a position to listen and be heard, then act quickly and constructively to build trust. Two-way communication is a critical, but often underestimated element of a strong relationship. Listening is a subtle, yet powerful tool universally available to every parent willing to listen.