“Mom, you really need to take a listening class.” So says my youngest whenever she catches me faking it. It usually starts with, “So, I had a dream last night…”
While she describes her birthday party with the life sized gummy bear and Sponge Bob Square Pants, I appropriately nod my head and utter “uh-huh.” So far, so good… But then five minutes later when the dream turns into something else and I respond with “Oh, that’s nice” after she informs me that the monster has just eaten her, the jig is up and I’ve just been caught committing one of the most common bad habits of “pretend listening.” Here’s the irony… I teach “Interpersonal Listening” at UNR and of all people, I know better.
Award winning essayist, Catherine M. Wallace, once wrote, “Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”
Five years from now, they won’t remember the details of their favorite cartoon episode but they will remember the feeling of being heard. It has been said that if we are faithful with the little things, we can be trusted with the big ones. Someday, my little girls will be big girls with big world problems and I hope the years of laying the foundation that Mom listens will leave the door open for those crucial conversations I will want to be there for down the road.
Here are 5 tips to better listening to our kids through the little and big years.
1. Stop, drop and listen. Words only make up 7% of communication. 93% of meaning comes from our body language, eye contact and tone of voice. Putting away the phone, getting down on their level and facing them while they speak lets them know they have your full attention.
2. Teach the “Interruption Rule.” When you can’t immediately drop what you are doing, you can try this trick I learned from a pro mom of four who trained her toddlers to put their hand on her shoulder whenever they wanted to interrupt a conversation. She would put her hand on theirs to let them know she acknowledged them, excuse herself from her conversation at an appropriate time and then turn to her child and thank them for waiting. Using plenty of positive feedback and respecting their attention span by not making them wait too long is an effective way to help them build patience and crucial social awareness that will serve them for years to come.
3. Put it on the shelf. As busy moms, we often have a million things running through our minds and it’s hard to put that mental list away while listening to our kid’s day. One technique is to make a mental picture of whatever you are thinking about and “put it on the shelf.” Memory experts suggest that turning tasks into visual images will help you recall what you need to get back to when your conversation is over.
4. Bring your O.A.R.! In her book, “How to Work a Room”, Susan RoAne advises party goers to “observe, ask and reveal” in conversations. You can use the same responses with toddlers to teenagers. Observations like “Wow, it sounds like you were having fun!” or “I can hear that you felt sad” shows you are paying attention to the thoughts, actions and feelings they are expressing. Questions can help clarify and demonstrate interest in their stories. Revealing childhood experiences of your own can help you connect with your son or daughter on a relational level as long as you keep it age appropriate and short so you don’t hijack the moment.
5. Make room. Whenever my girls want to have a “serious talk” they ask to meet me in the cuddle chair, a large oversized round loveseat tucked back in our room. It was a place where we would read books and drink hot cocoa and over the years has become a special spot to sneak away if they need one on one time with Mom. Having a designated listening spot as they get older where they know they can get 100% of your attention can become a life saver for big conversations in the future. If your active little boy or girl are less likely to sit down for longer than two seconds, even when hot cocoa is offered, getting side by side with an activity may be the best way to get them to open up. Lots of moms report that they can never get their kid talking until they are in the car or on a bike by their side. The trick is to find the place they feel free and make sure you are there when they are ready.
Knowing your child, your own listening habits and the approaches that will work best for your family is always the best key to success to keeping the lines of communication open. Half the battle is committing to give attention to the art of paying attention and believe the reward in the end will be worth it.