In my most recent list of Weekend Reads, I linked to a wonderful post from Janet Lansbury, 10 Secrets to Raising Good Listeners. A friend of mine posed what I thought was a very good question. “What about the ways adults can do a better job of listening to kids?” It got me thinking. So here’s my list. I’d love to hear what would be on yours.
1. Slow down. Even better, STOP. When I’m consciously teaching children how to listen, I make sure their eyes look, their bodies are still, their mouths are quiet, etc. But too often adults (myself included) don’t offer children the same courtesy. We “listen” to children as we multitask. We buzz about the room picking up toys, tossing an “uh-huh” over our shoulders now and then. We send a text while stirring a pot of spaghetti and glancing at the TV to check the score of the game while our kindergartener explains what happened at recess. If we expect to really listen to children, we have to slow down to give them time to really talk, and we have to stop multitasking and model the same respectful listening behaviors we expect from them.
2. Get closer. Get down to the child’s level. Make eye-contact. Hold a child’s hands or sit right beside him. Use your own body language to show a child that you really want to hear what he has to say.
3. Hear it, don’t just fix it. Use active listening techniques like repeating and rephrasing to show a child that you are listening. Don’t jump right in to solving all the problems or telling a child what she should have done. Active listening not only helps children to process their own experiences and solve their own problems, but it communicates that you’re interested in what they think and have to say, and less interested in taking over.
4. Feelings are never wrong. Validate the feelings children communicate, even if you don’t approve of the resulting action. (“You must have felt very disappointed when you didn’t get to play with legos. I would have felt disappointed too. But throwing the lego box isn’t the best way to take care of that.”) Avoid saying things like, “You shouldn’t be scared” or “You can’t really be sad” because they send the message that you dont’ want them to be truthful about their feelings. Instead, relate (“I can see why you’d feel scared. I used to be afraid of….”) and then share thoughts that might help put things in perspective (“I know I feel safe when….”).
5. Ask the second and third question. My husband is in the business of education as well. He says that in all his educational training, he’s heard that you shouldn’t ask simple yes/no, good/bad types of questions. But he disagrees. The problem, he says, is when we stop there. We have to go on to the second question, and then the third question. We can’t say, “How was your day?” and then check off the daily communication box when we get the answer “Fine.” We need to ask more. What was fine about it? Was there anything really bad about it? What was the best part of the whole day?
6. Create everyday spaces for routine conversation. We can’t expect kids to come to us with deep questions and heavy problems if we haven’t already built a culture for everyday conversations. Whether it’s regular bedtime talks or chats over an afternoon snack, regular conversations build a precedence of trust. Trust is a critical part of communication, and it can’t be conjured up in moments of crisis. It has to be built over time.
7. Ask for their thoughts. Communicate to children that you want their input by asking for it. Just as in the last point, this isn’t a tool to be saved for a moment of crisis. Set a consistent precedence (and encourage critical thinking skills) by asking children for their ideas on everything, from what they think will happen next in a story to what they think should be done with an empty lot.
8. Share interests. No one wants to talk about something they think their listeners have no interest in. Take a special interest in the things your children find interesting. This creates a common dialogue and invites fun, non-threatening conversations. For example, my husband and I each made it through several decades of our lives without watching a single NASCAR event. Then our oldest son somehow fell in love with racing. I’m still not personally passionate about the sport, but I follow well enough to be fluent in conversations involving Trevor Bayne, bump drafts, and lucky dogs.
9. Listen to what they’re NOT saying. Listening has to do with more than spoken words. It’s being tuned in to body language, tone, attitude, and behaviors.
10. Learn from watching others. You can learn a lot by observing other parents and teachers. Whether it’s a great mentor you want to emulate, or a perfect example of what-not-to-do, seeing other people in action can make you more aware of your own behaviors and attitudes.
So what can you share? What have you learned about being a good listener that might help someone else build their relationship with the most important children in their lives? s.
Top photo by Terri Heisele.