Dear Caring Parent,

I’ve been thinking about telling vs listening lately as I talk with parents and children. While some things definitely need telling, I’ve concluded that we could all do a lot more listening. At home and in schools. How do we parents get better at listening? True listening – with curiosity and a mindset of discovering ‘what do you think’, ‘what do you know’, ‘what do you want to know’, ‘what do you need to know’, ‘what are you hearing’, ‘how do you plan to respond if ___?’ 

I find myself watching parents relax as they are truly listened to, with good reason – parenting touches every part of our being! I also watch the difference in a child’s heightened engagement when parents are truly listening to them.

The Telling Side

Yet it’s hard. We live in a telling culture for one thing, not a listening culture. People tell parents how to parent. Parents tell their children how to behave, the schedule, who they can play with, how much they can run down the street or not. Our schools are even based on telling – how to compute addition, history as laid out in a text book, science facts. We fill the vessel of our children’s minds through telling. For the most part. That’s being parental, right? Maybe not as much as cultural legacy would say. 

We don’t learn how to listen. I for one never learned about listening until I took a communications class in college. We do, however, tend to do a great job listening to our babies

But as get older they need to be told ___, we say! True, telling is necessary. Or is it?  We have to tell them to look both ways before they cross the street, right?. Or do we? Could we ask, how do you know if any cars are coming? And why do you need to know if a car is coming down the road? We’d quickly learn whether telling is needed or not! 

Does listening apply to everything? Not really. There is such a thing as an order, or something non-negotiable, or a safety scenario. There are times when they really don’t get the consequences of something like trying to kick a ball over cars as they go by, or getting drunk and driving. Telling IS necessary. 

YET, we could do a lot more listening!

The Listening Side

Listening is a lot of things. When I’m listening well, it’s a multi sensory experience. What I’m picking up on includes their words, their look and sound, their feel, their movement. I’m checking in with them to see if I have it right. I’m pausing, asking questions as a response. I’m backing away from what I wish or judge.

Listening is what we do when we want to understand the what and why of something, when we want to energize a relationship, when we want to get out of nagging or boredom. Listening to our children is what we do when we want them to grow into their independent selves at the stage they are in. When we listen with curiosity, we give them a chance to engage with their mind and feelings – it’s empowering. It’s like walking hand in hand.

How Do I Listen Better?

Here are the main ways to engage in listening:

  1. ask questions – listening for their awareness and perspective as well as knowledge (like about crossing the road).
  2. reflect – trying to understand their experience by letting them know what you are hearing the say.
  3. focus on non-verbals – getting hints about what they are feeling strongly about. And there are times when all of these are going on at once.

LIstening is so much more fun and alive than telling. And yet, I know well how to flub it. In my work I do a lot of listening. Yet when I come home I’ve been know to turn on the telling, parental side of me!  I have to remind myself, to this day, to listen (culture is strong). 

This Week

Start to re- imagine some of your everyday situations that get you into a bind with your children, or when you find yourself nagging. Get curious about what they might say if you ask questions, reflect to them empathetically, and just notice their non-verbals and put that into words for them or just respond to the feeling, with understanding. Instead of saying “don’t cross the street without looking”, ask “what happens if there’s a car coming fast as you cross the street?”.  Instead of “why haven’t you finished your homework?”, ask, “what is it like doing that homework?”. 

If you are interested in getting better at how you listen to your children AND to yourself, The Dance of Parenting is for you! It includes fun ‘exercises’ for listening and stories about how it helped in simple to intense situations. I wrote it. I use it! It’s my friendly reminder, because like I said, I need it. You can even use the exercises to get your children to listen more.

Take care now, Natasha