Many parents complain that their children don’t listen, yet few parents really listen to their children. Parents tend to do the following:
- React and Correct: Don’t talk to me that way. Why can’t you be more positive, grateful, or respectful? You shouldn’t feel that way. Why can’t you be different—more like your sister or brother?
- Fix or Rescue: Maybe if you would do this ____, then____. (Maybe if you would be friendlier, then you would have more friends.) I’ll talk to your teacher (or your friend’s mother). Don’t feel bad.
Tools for Better Listening
- Validate feelings: I can see this is very upsetting for you. Sounds like you are really sad, mad, feeling hurt.
- Ask Curiosity Questions: What happened? Want to talk about it?
- Invite Deeper Sharing: Anything else? Is there more? Anything else? Anything else?
- Listen with your Lips Closed: Hmmmm.
- Have Faith in Your Child: Know that, in most cases, your child simply needs a supportive, listening ear as part of the process of venting before coming up with his or her solution. Through this process your child learns resiliency (“I can deal with the ups and downs of life.") and capability ("I can survive getting upset and figure out solutions.").
There are many levels of listening. When parents complain that toddlers don’t listen, that isn’t exactly true. First of all, parents really mean, “This child doesn’t obey,” or, “This child knows better.” They are right about the former (toddlers and preschoolers seldom obey) but wrong about the latter (children under the age of six do not “know better” at the level parents expect.) They may “know” the family rules at a primitive level, but not at a sophisticated level that requires the kind of morality and judgment and responsibility that does not develop until closer to the age of eight. Thus, too many children are being scolded, and even punished, for not having a level of development for which they are not yet capable.
Learning is a Developmental Process
How long does it take for a child to learn to talk, and how do they learn? This question is very easy for parents to answer. They know that their children will not learn to talk for at least a year, and that the way they learn is hearing their parents talk to them—the more the better. Then, on that happy day when their child finally says her first word, they don’t start punishing her for not speaking in sentences—at a college level. Yet these same parents punish their preschoolers for “not listening,” for “not sharing,” for “writing on walls” with crayons parents left around where their exploring, experimenting children can find them.
At an even deeper level, many parents don’t listen between the lines to the belief behind the behavior. (Perhaps a child is feeling “dethroned” by the birth of a new baby). They don’t listen to hear if their children are feeling powerless or discouraged. They don’t listen from an understanding of developmentally age-appropriateness or brain development (see above).
Example is the best teacher. Learn to be a better listener and someday, when all their developmental growing catches up, so will your children.