Family life can be noisy and chaotic. There’s not a lot of room for quiet and considered time. Yet listening to our children is one of the greatest gifts we can offer.
My family is possibly one of the noisiest families you will ever meet. We love to talk – often all at the same time. We recently welcomed a puppy into our home and my husband likes the radio permanently on. It’s wall-to-wall sound that is both lively and chaotic. I imagine there are a lot of families like this, particularly when children are small. The problem I have with this cacophony of sound is that it doesn’t allow much space for listening.
Listening to our children is the greatest gift we can give
Humans survive through communication. When we converse with each other, it’s an exchange of ideas and feelings. For our children – who are developing their own sense of self – being heard is vitally important.
According to author Dr Vanessa Lapointe, “Listening is a defining act of love.”
What it looks like to really listen
That all sounds easy right? Every day we have hundreds of conversations, which means we’re listening all the time. But if you think back to those conversations – how many times was listening the only thing you were doing? When I’m talking to my kids I am usually washing up, putting clothes away, packing bags or cleaning the house. I’m a parent, I hardly ever stop.
What our kids need is active listening. Vanessa says, “When you truly listen, it means that you are listening to understand rather than listening while waiting to have your turn. Listening is the act of seeing and hearing another person fully.”
Psychologist Nadine Reynolds explains, “A child’s main caregivers will be the single biggest influence on how they grow into adults. It is essential that your child forms self-worth and value which you are fostering every time you really listen to them.” Nadine says active listening involves five key components:
- Hold eye contact and orientate toward them (sit on the floor or pull up a chair).
- Use their name to greet them and indicate you are ready.
- Nod and show empathy to convey you are engaged.
- Ask open questions to facilitate their expression and remember to take turns talking.
- Ensure technology (yours and theirs) is put away.
Being realistic about what’s possible
Most parents will guffaw at the idea that active listening is even possible. My children never stop talking. If I tried to listen attentively to everything they said, nothing would ever get done. Plus I would likely go insane (there are only so many conversations about Beyblades that one can have). However as Dr Michael Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening, says, “Listening well takes an active effort and you shouldn’t try to do it all the time.”
Vanessa reiterates, saying that as the listener, we also need a break from paying attention to our children. “This is the perfect example of ‘what is to the greatest good of self will be to the greatest good of all’ (Rabbi Hillel). It is not always time to listen. And we have to be true to ourselves in situations where this matters. It is okay for our children to sometimes experience what it is to have to wait, to be disappointed that it is not their turn, to have to share mummy/daddy’s time with the other demands of life.”
How to manage many competing voices
I’ve been at the dinner table with everyone talking to me at the same time (including my husband). I’ve had to call time out and remind everyone that I can multitask in many ways, but I am yet to master the art of listening to several people at once!
Michael says, “In many relationships there is a pursuer-distancer dynamic, in which one presses for more contact and attention while the other feels pressured and pulls away.”
That is, children will pester (pursue) while parents who are feeling beleaguered will pull away (distance). Michael suggests that if we make special time for our kids where we can actively listen to them it could help to break that cycle.
Nadine’s advice is to be clear about why you can’t listen right now (‘your sister was speaking first’, ‘I’m concentrating on dinner’) and that you will get to them soon.
I admit that I find active listening difficult. My kids have definitely inherited my ability to talk. But I notice the difference when I take the time to face them, look into their eyes and really hear what they have to say. Even when it’s about the latest construction of a Beyblade. I can feel the warmth of acknowledgement, that they know they are important to me.
We all want to be listened to in a world full of so much sound. We all want to feel seen and understood. If we can give that feeling to our kids, even for five minutes every day, it’s worth the effort.
Vanessa says, “If I could say one thing that would actually change the world – it is, ‘If we raised our children in the extraordinary experience of being listened to, they would then grow into extraordinary listeners.’ And that right there is the answer to everything.”