By Mac Bledsoe
All too often, when people say that they
can't communicate with their kids what they really mean is that they don't
know how to talk so that their kids will listen. What they forget is that
their own listening habits are probably more important than any thing they
One of the most loving and
personality-shaping things that a parent can do for a child is to simply
listen to them! Kids of all ages have questions, thoughts, feelings, and
observations, which will be very enlightening and instructional to parents
who can learn to listen.
This behavior of listening to children can
begin at the very earliest of ages. When our first son, Drew, was 4-5
months old we took him to our Pediatrician, Dr. Verne, an extremely
perceptive and intelligent man. He said something to us that made great
sense and ultimately saved Drew's life at the age of 8 months. While in
his office, Drew began to cry after receiving a shot. We, the young
parents, began to comfort our little boy by saying, "Oh, don't cry Drew,
you're OK. Don't cry."
Dr. Verne interrupted us and said something
very challenging and something that changed our behavior forever. He very
calmly said, "Don't tell him to stop crying, he is trying to tell you
something in the only way he knows how… listen to him! The shot hurt and
he is telling you that! Listen, and respond to what he is telling you."
From that day on we tried our best to
listen to our own children, as well as to all of the kids we worked with
at school. About 3-4 months after listening to Dr. Verne's sage advice,
Drew began to cry rather violently in the middle of the night. We became
alarmed and Barbara called the Emergency Room. The On-Call Doctor had her
describe the situation and made a diagnosis over the phone. He concluded
that our baby had gas and he phoned in a prescription for a mild pain
medication. Barbara thought about that for a moment after hanging up and
she said, "That doesn't make sense. Drew is trying to tell us something
about how he is feeling… we need to listen to him; not give him a drug
that will hide the symptoms."
So, at that moment, in the middle of the
night, we called and awakened Dr. Cobb, the doctor who delivered Drew.
(Dr. Verne, the Pediatrician, was out of town.) He told us to bring the
baby in and let him take a look at him. To make a long story short, after
he examined Drew, he immediately loaded us in his car and drove us to the
next town, where an internal surgery specialist operated immediately and
saved Drew's life! Had Barbara not listened it most certainly would have
Man, did we ever learn a lesson! Kids so
often give us tons of information about how they are feeling and thinking,
if we will just stop talking, telling, and explaining and listen with all
of our intellect and understanding.
Now let's move ahead to a period that has
been wrongfully labeled "the Terrible-Twos." At that age kids are
attempting to establish a sense of self and they are incessantly asking
"Why?" Instead of becoming alarmed, annoyed, or angered by this
questioning behavior, what we need to do is listen carefully to the
questions. (Sometimes the questions are cleverly disguised as tantrums or
fits.) They are asking about the world and how it works, and if we respond
by ignoring them or telling them to be quiet we are simply teaching them
not to ask for guidance from adults. They will get the answers but they
just won't get them from you. It all starts with listening to them! Once
you develop a habit of careful listening, children rapidly learn that the
way to get information to use in making the critical decisions in life
often is to ask Mom and Dad.
When they become teens they enter into the
next period which so many parents wrongfully label annoying. What kids are
doing in the teen years is asking more difficult questions. Listen
carefully to the questions and listen completely. They are just like
2-year olds only, "Why can't I have a green Popsicle?" and "Why can't I
wear pajamas to the store?" are replaced by, "Why do you believe in God?"
and "Why can't I stay out with the gang until 1:00 in the morning?" The
key here is to listen carefully and only give answers that are carefully
thought out. At these times it is imperative to stop what you are doing
and give the child absolutely 100% of your attention and listening
ability. Put down the paper, turn off the TV, stop working and look them
in the eye as they speak. So many parents miss this critical moment for
input into their children's stockpile of ideas that will rule their world.
Rather than listening and answering many parents wait until the child has
asked elsewhere and gotten a different answer from another source. Then
they try to express their disapproval and try to change it after the fact.
We learned later that there were six key
words or phrases that we could use to listen effectively. They are: "Oh?",
"Really?", "Wow!", "Uuummm!", "I didn't know you felt like that!" and
"Tell me more." These particular words are not magic and you can devise
some of your own, but you must have some key phrases like that, ready to
offer at the drop of a hat anytime a child begins to talk to you. These
phrases must be non-judgmental evidence that you have heard what is said,
without interrupting or offering your own thoughts before they are asked
for. In that kind of atmosphere kids can, and will, openly express
themselves and you, the parent, will begin to learn what they are
thinking, feeling, and wondering about.
Another key element of effective listening
says that, at times, a parent must simply bite their lip and not say
anything. Kids may not be seeking advice but rather simply looking for a
sounding board. (This would never apply when a child is sharing thoughts
about something illegal, immoral, or life-threatening!) By simply
listening, the parent leaves open the lines of communication so that a
child's thoughts can be safely and confidently shared.
In closing, it is important to note that a
critical offshoot of this approach is that listening to them clearly says
something very important to the child, "You are a valued person with valid
ideas and I like to hear them." It builds confidence in a child's
thinking, reasoning, and decision-making abilities. Listen carefully and
constantly to your children.