As parents, we are prone to do more talking than listening with our children. Now, there is a time for both talking and listening. The key is to be timely and to focus on what your child needs in the moment.
Little Chip is having trouble tying his shoes. He’s trying to be a big boy, but he’s not getting it. If mom jumps in there and starts with, “Here, let me get that for you,” the shoes will be tied but a teachable moment will be lost.
First, notice Chip’s emotional fever rising. Does his face carry a frown? Is he throwing his shoe aside? Is he looking at you and about to burst into tears? All signs of his emotional fever rising. Your response? Active listening. “Wow, buddy, you seem frustrated? Can I help?”
This simple comment on your part starts the process of Chip’s fever going down. By asking to help, you can get permission to show him again how to tie his shoes, guide him through doing it himself, or do it yourself, with running commentary to your son.
If Chip simply asks for your help, with no signs of a rising emotional fever, then you can direct him or instruct him in the process. Direction and instruction are two of three healthy forms of communication parents give children who are simply learning. The other, checking in, is a short, touching base talk, such as, “Hey, buddy, how’s that shoelace tying thing going for you?” With these forms of communication, the goal is to help out, as the parent, and not to take the task over.
When active listening, if you err on the side of talking too much, you are probably turning a teachable moment into an unwanted lecture. People can usually identify feelings in 5 words or less. Give your child time to absorb and respond.
When touching base, directing, or instructing, where there is no apparent problem for your child, remember that most children’s attention spans are about 30-60” If your child’s attention wanders, you’ve lost a teachable moment anyway. Either engage his curiosity about the topic or let it go and come back to it later.
The time for talking is when there is no emotional fever and when you’ve captured your child’s attention. The time for listening is when your child is hurting. Listening heals the hurt far more than talking.
As parents, we do a lot of directing, instructing, and correcting with our children. It comes with the territory. But, my question to you today is this. Are you also grateful for your child and do you affirm him? All of these qualities can lead to teachable moments.
Twelve year old Buck lived up to his nickname. Being Henry, Jr. just didn’t cut it, so his folks went with Buck. Boy, did his nickname ring true. He seemed to try to buck all the rules.
“Buck, I showed you how I wanted the icing on the cookies. Why are you doing it differently?” asked his mama while they were preparing cookies to the party. “I don’t know,” pondered Buck. “I just wanted to try it this way.”
Now, mama has a choice. She can assert her rightful parental authority by telling Buck to start over and ice the cookies the way she had told him. Even saying it nicely would lead her to direct, instruct, and correct her son.
Or, she could think, “It’s only cookies. How they look is not the point.” This thinking might lead her to be grateful for Buck’s help on the project and to affirm his creativity in adding his own touch.
The mindful parent is aware of both her own needs and feelings, as well as those of her child in the moment. When you look for the bigger picture, you may capture a teachable moment.
Mama saw Buck’s tentative look, like he expected to be scolded for doing something wrong. “You know,” she decided how to handle the situation, “there are lots of ways to decorate cookies. No right way.” She reached over to hug her son, even as he jokingly tried to pull away. “I like your creativity. It’s your personal touch on the cookies. Good for you.” Buck lit up and beamed, as he went back to icing the cookies.
Are you grateful for your child’s efforts, even if they are different than expected? Are you affirming his individuality and creativity? You are creating teachable moments he will remember forever.
So it seems that the children’s story about Goldilocks and the Three Bears applies to effective parenting as well. You remember, Goldilocks found herself in the home of the Three Bears in the woods. The Bear family was not there. After helping herself to their meal on the table, Goldilocks got sleepy. She found their beds to be too hard, too soft, and then just right. I’m hoping that you are working on a parenting style that is just right.
“Patrick, you’re room is a mess. Stop what your gaming and clean it up.” “But, dad, I…” “I said, ‘now’ son.” “But why can’t I…?” “What part of ‘now’ don’t you understand?” “But why…?” “Because I am your father and I said so. So get to it. No more buts.”
Here is an example of waaay too hard parenting. Others would call this authoritative, or drill sergeant parenting. This kind of exchange is fear-based and power-oriented. There is no relationship here, only authority. Most children in this environment end up being bullies to their peers and can’t wait to leave the home when they come of age.
“Patrick, hey buddy. Your room is looking a little ragged here. Mind if I help you pick it up?” “Knock yourself out, Dad,” Patrick replied, with his thumbs flying, keeping his eyes locked on to the game. “Uh, do you mind putting your snack wrappers and soda cans in the trash can by your side there? I’ll pick up your dirty clothes.” “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of mortal combat, Dad?” “Well, sure, son. Okay, then, finish your game and pick things up before you come down for supper, okay?” “Yeah, whatever, Dad.”
Here is an example of waaay too soft parenting. Others would call this permissive. The child is left to his own devices, with no substantive direction. Who’s in charge? Patrick. Children are too young to be in charge. It just gets them anxious and hyper. They grow up feeling like they can do anything they want, with no consequences. They don’t play nicely with others. As young adults, they never want to leave home. Why would they? All their needs are catered to.
“Yo, Patrick. Dude. This place is a pigsty.” Dad moves to the gaming station and pushes the pause button.” “Dad!!! What are you doing? I’m in the middle of this.” “And you will continue to be in the middle of it after you clean your room. This room is a health hazard. You can be neat and stay healthy and still finish your gaming afterward.” “Aww, man…” Dad lingers and directs Patrick’s efforts, putting a few things away himself. As he is helping out, he active listens Patrick’s complaints and redirects to the positive consequences of his clean-up actions.
Finally, Dad got it right. This is just right parenting. It promotes relationship, responsibility, accountability, and reward. Kids with just right parenting play nice with others, are considerate, and plan well for coming events. They understand give and take, accept responsible freedom, and are launched successfully into young adulthood. Is your parenting just right?
Charlie came stomping in the back door from outside, grumbling to himself. His brother, Pete, followed him and mumbled, “Sore loser.” Charlie turned on his heel and started yelling at his brother. Their mom heard the commotion from the kitchen, sighed, wiped her hands on the dish towel and turned toward them at the back door.
“Charlie, that’s enough,” she started. “We don’t talk like that around here.” “But…but, he broke the rules,” he pleaded with his mom. “I said, enough,” mom barked. She then sighed and directed, “Go to your room to calm down.” Charlie stomped off and complained under his breath, “Sure. Take his side, again.” Pete smiled to himself as he found his iPad and cued up a game.
Mom went back to the kitchen thinking, “Well, that didn’t go well.” As she went back to drying dishes, she made a decision, “I need to go to Pete, apologize for snapping at him, and let him talk it out. I need to pull out my active listening.”
This is a snapshot of the journey parents travel from surviving to thriving in a healthy family. For all of us, stuff happens. It’s what you do with the stuff that makes for teachable moments. The journey has 4 parts. First, we tend to do what’s familiar, even if it’s not working. Then, when we learn something and decide it’s a better path, we try it. With repeated effort, and lots of missteps, we get used to the new path. Finally, the new path becomes second nature to us.
For Charlie’s mom, she caught herself on a familiar path, using her power to solve the immediate problem. That works well…for the moment. However, Charlie has lots of unexpressed feelings and sees Pete as her mom’s favorite. That makes for longer term issues.
How cool was it for mom to catch herself in old, unhealthy habits that were familiar, and then to venture out on a new path, active listening? She started with an apology to her son. With her apology, and then active listening, Charlie’s feelings went from angry and frustrated, to confused, to heard, to hopeful. She could see his emotional fever come down. He’s not off the hook for his behavior, but the process has gone from power to relationship.
After her conversation with Charlie in his bedroom, mom asked how he felt and then what he thought about how his mom handled the situation. Afterward, she told him that she was trying out active listening as a way to understand him and his needs and feelings better. Charlie said he liked it and told her to keep doing it. Such is a parent’s journey to thriving, and to many more teachable moments.