Trick 2: Listening
Suppose that Trick 1 turns things around in your house and it may. Suppose your children begin to behave the way you always hoped they would. Would your family then “live happily ever after” as in the fairy tales?
This is highly unlikely, for two major reasons. First, your children, and you too, will continue to grow and change. New issues will arise. Confusions and surprises are part of growth.
Second, pressures from the outside world will intrude. No one grows up without some problems. Whether from their personal growth or from conflicts with friends, with school or with you, your children will continue to experience difficulties. What can you do? This is where the second trick comes into play.
Trick 2 is listening. Listening is the basis for all counseling and therefore is part of the training for therapists. For parents, it is the single most useful skill for handling tough situations. Parents also deserve training in listening.
People often say, “What do you mean by ‘learn to listen’? I listen all the time. With the racket in my house you’d have to be deaf not to hear the kids.” But Trick 2 is not just hearing our children’s noise, but actively listening to their spoken and unspoken comments in ways that are helpful.
To listen actively, the first step is to show with your eyes and your body that you are listening. Look at your child, and focus your attention on him or her.
As your child talks, respond just enough to let her know you really hear her, but do not interrupt what she wants to tell you. Usually a word or two, a syllable or even just a nod, is better than a whole sentence, and far better than a lecture.
Then, to check your impressions and to let your child know you understand, reflect back what you think he has said and what you think he feels.
For example, your son John furiously stomps into the room saying, “We just got a good game going, and then Bobby rode off to the park!” One good reflection might be, “It sounds like you’re really angry at Bobby for leaving.” While trying to summarize John’s words and the underlying feeling of his message, make your statement tentative. He will then feel able to tell you if you heard what he meant to say. He might say, “Yeah, we were right in the middle of a game and Bobby quit.” Or, “No, I’m not mad at Bobby. I’m mad because he’s going to the park, and you won’t let me go there.”
Listening attentively and reflecting back the essence of what you heard is difficult. We tend to half-listen while doing other things. Or, if we do get fully engaged, we may get so heavily involved that we ask lots of questions, give advice, and treat our child’s problem as our own. If we take over and tell our children what to do, we rob them of opportunities to develop their own problem-solving skills. With our support, and without our interference, kids can make their own surprisingly good decisions.
The following two thoughts serve as guides for good listening:
- I want to hear what you want to tell me. (I don’t need to ask questions that satisfy my own curiosity but may distract you from your main message.)
- I have faith in your ability to cope with your problem. (I can listen while you think through the best way to act, knowing that if I hold back on giving advice you are likely to come up with your own good solution.)
If your actions and words follow these two guidelines, your listening will send a powerful message to your child.
We all have heard the saying, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Recognizing parents’ natural tendencies to try to fix things, a more helpful motto might be, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
The skill of just being there and listening actively is indeed a “trick that makes parenting a treat.” It lightens the burden of feeling totally responsible for every part of your child’s existence. Sharing that responsibility with your children helps them develop their own problem solving skills, which in turn helps you feel more confident about their ability to handle things.
Children who expect to be heard rather than interrogated or lectured are willing to come to parents with important issues. Being involved in your child’s life as a caring and trusted parent is the best treat of all.