Are you an active listener? How would your kids grade your listening skills?
As parents, we think we’re all great listeners, but the truth is, most of us can learn a lot about listening. What did my kids say when I asked them how well I listened to them? One gave me an A-. The other gave me a D+.
Of course, the grades they gave me not only ranked my listening skills from their perspective but also revealed the age of my kids. The kid who gave me an A- was in elementary school. The one who gave me a D+ was in junior high. Still, I needed to take seriously that D+. Even though junior-high-age kids can be a tough bunch to parents, they also need us to parent well and listen to them, even when they talk irrationally. Plus, I wanted to know why my elementary-age kid gave me an A- instead of an A.
The biggest complaint from both of my kids? I was an excellent listener, but I wasn’t always a good listener when they needed me to listen.
My D+ child said he wanted me to listen without as much judgment. That wasn’t easy for me! He was making some choices that I disagreed with (which all teenagers do). His argument was that he was also making a lot of good choices, and he wanted me to let him live his life.
Okay, so he had a good point. Yes, I needed to let go a bit, but I also needed to stay engaged in his life, to talk about what I expected and valued—and why. Still, it was important that I listen more to his perspective. A lot of times we shared similar expectations and values, but we interpreted and acted on them differently. I also needed to let my child own his problems instead of always trying to change his behaviors. In other words, I needed to see my child as a separate human being and respect my child for being his own person.
The best source I’ve found in learning how to listen well is Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Tested New Way to Raise Responsible Children. It provides concrete ways on how to listen actively to your kids.
Tips for Active Listening:
Active listening is harder than it sounds. Gordon highlights six attitudes parents need to have before even learning the active-listening skills:
1. You must see your child as someone separate from you.
2. You must want to really hear what your child has to say (even if you disagree with it).
3. You must really want to help your child (not on your terms but on your child’s terms).
4. You must accept your child’s feelings (no matter how much their feelings make you uncomfortable).
5. You must accept that feelings change and not to be afraid of your child’s feelings.
6. You must trust your child to handle his or her feelings and find solutions to his or her problems.
In my experience, these skills represent a generational shift. When I was a child, my parents didn’t listen to me in these ways. That wasn’t the way that generation parented. So not only did I need to learn the attitudes and skills of active listening, I also needed to work through some of my childhood issues. It can be hard to give your kids something you didn’t receive.
I’ve also realized that everyone benefits when you really listen to them—not only my kids, but also my work colleagues, my neighbors, and my extended family members. Our society likes to talk, talk, talk. We can all learn to be better listeners.
1. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Tested New Way to Raise Responsible Children (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000).
2. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk (New York: Harper, 1999).