One simple, yet surprisingly hard thing to do as a parent is to simply be quiet and let our children talk…or cry, laugh, giggle, sing, and scream.
Working with parents of little ones and bigger kids, I hear it all the time. It’s hard to be quiet and not interrupt, it’s hard not to negotiate, reprimand them, tell them what they should have done, or insist that we are right and they are wrong. But good listening is the cornerstone to a connected relationship with your child.
Good listening doesn’t mean you have to give in to your child’s demands or let them walk around the house insulting their brother. You can set limits—and, in fact, limits are vital for children. But once you’ve set a limit, stay with them and listen.
This may mean listening to a tantrum or a protest. “That’s not fair! Why can’t I have another cookie!?” They might scream. Or “Why won’t you buy me that stuffy I want!?” they might yell in the middle of a toy store when you’re buying a birthday present for their friend.
And while you don’t have to give in, it is helpful to just listen. What doesn’t help them is to try to negotiate with them when they’re upset, talk over them, or talk them out of it. Because when they are in the throws of a tantrum, or an angry, explosive moment, they can’t hear you. The prefrontal cortex in their brain—the part that modulates their mood, helps them plan ahead, organize, and remember things—is shut down and rational thinking isn’t available.
They really can’t make sense of what you’re saying sometimes—even when they are asking you why or trying to negotiate their way into something they desperately want. So the next time your child is upset and you feel like talking them out of it, offering a better alternative, or telling them what they’ve done wrong, try zipping it instead.
It’s not just when our children are upset that we need to talk less. Anytime you feel like saying something along the lines of, I told you so, or when you have an urge to criticize your child, or tell them what they could have done better, you should probably keep quiet.
The other day, my six year old son and I took a lovely hike in a woodsy area near our house. Often it’s hard to get him out of the house and particularly when I tell him our destination is a walk in the neighborhood or a tromp through the woods. Even though he loves nature and he always comes home more relaxed and happy when we’ve taken a walk in the woods, he rarely wants to go.
When we came home from the walk that day I said, “Wasn’t that a great walk this morning?” He agreed with a big smile. Then I was planning to ad something like, “I don’t know why you never want to go on a hike! We always have such a great time when we do. See how great you would feel if we went on walks more often?” But before I could even get out the “I” and the “don’t”, he said, “Mom, stop. Don’t say it. Don’t.”
“Do you know what I’m going to say?” I asked. “I can think of a few things you’ll probably say.” He said. And he was right. It wasn’t necessary to tell him I told you so and to launch into my complaints about why we couldn’t easily and happily slip out of the house for a hike. So I didn’t and I smiled about the fact that he stopped me before I could get the words out.
When you want to complain to your child about their behavior or nag them about something they’re not doing, think twice. It’s often not that useful to them.
Emmy, a colleague of mine in Massachusetts, tells a wonderful story about listening to her son when he was a teenager. When he was growing up they had a weekly special time date together—a time when it was just the two of them and he got to choose what they did together. Emmy loved this time with her son, but wondered why he didn’t open up more with her as they circled the mall and played games together. She chalked it up to the fact that he was a boy.
And then one week, Emmy’s close friend died and she decided not to speak for a few days. She asked her son if he still wanted to do their weekly special time that Wednesday and he did.
Not long after they left the house for their usual trip to the mall, her son started to talk to her about things he had never talked about before, including the birth of his younger brother, what he thought about religion, and how he felt when his parents separated. Emmy listened in a way she hadn’t listened before.
Instead of playing games in the mall the way they usually did, this time they just walked from one floor to the next.
Emmy remembered that on the drive home he was still talking, “…and when we got home he asked me not to get out of the car yet. He talked another 20 minutes and then kissed me goodnight and said he was tired. I sat in the car alone after he left, quite stunned and realized that the only thing different this week was me. I did not encourage, lead, explain, teach, guide, criticize him in any way and he was able to pour his mind out in an easy stream of talking about his life and his world.” (Emmy Rainwalker)
One thing our children want more than anything is for us to see them—to understand what they love, to know what wakes them up at night, to understand how they think about the world. And in order to see them, we have to really listen.