There’s an old adage that says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Add to this adage the benefit of practicing a new skill consistently over time, and you get effective active listening.
Mary had just read my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting. She even convinced her husband, Andy, to take the parenting class with her where this was the resource book. Eight year old Amy, their oldest daughter, was their “test subject” in practicing the parenting tool of active listening.
“Mommy, I don’t get this times table stuff. Can you help me?” she asked one night while doing her homework. Mary put up her book and went to Amy’s bedroom.
“What don’t you get, dear?” she asked. “Everything. Math is dumb,” Amy threw her homework down and sprawled across her bed, covering her head under her pillow.
Mary sat on Amy’s bed beside her distraught daughter and concluded, “Well, that’s not going to get your homework done. Let’s try again.”
Amy groused, “Leave me alone,” as she recovered her head with her pillow.
Mary sighed and paused. She reached over to gently rub Amy’s back and spoke softly, “Well, sweetheart, I guess I just blew that, huh?” Amy uncovered her head from the pillow and turned on her elbow, looking puzzled at her mom’s comment.
Mary cradled her daughter’s cheek with her palm. “You know, darling, your dad and I are taking this class to help us try to better be there for you guys.” She paused and continued, “I think I just blew a chance to active listen your feelings. Can I try again?”
Amy nodded and folded herself into her mom’s arms. Mary thought for a moment and said, “You’re really frustrated that the times table is hard to understand, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and it’s not fair,” Amy pouted.
“You’re not sure how to go about trying to get it right?”
“No, it’s too hard.”
“Okay, I have some thoughts that might help you get it right. Do you want to hear them?”
Amy eagerly agreed and the two of them tackled the homework together, with Mary guiding her daughter’s efforts.
My dad used to always tell me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again. Good counsel, especially for your efforts to active listen your children. Kids are very forgiving if you are sincere with your efforts, and if you include them in the process.
After Amy successfully finished her times table homework with mom’s guidance, Mary asked, “So, how did I do with active listening your feelings? You know, my bossing you around just pulled you further away from me. When I active listened, was it more helpful to you?”
It’s okay doing this debriefing after a conversation with your child. Their feedback will help you in your skill-building. If it doesn’t go well the first time, back up, take a breath, and try again. You are learning something new, so practice, and give it time. In doing so, you are providing a teachable moment for both you and your child.
Many years ago, my 8 year old daughter was acting out and I sent her to her room. I don’t remember the details. Sometime later I was doing laundry in the basement. I had not processed Rachel’s time-out with her and she had not been let out of her room. Nonetheless, she made her way down to where I was doing laundry. Silently, she floated a paper airplane from the doorway to me, and then ran quickly back upstairs. There were markings on the plane, so I unfolded it. Rachel had written, “I hate you.”
Wow! I was crestfallen, heartbroken, and stunned. I finished my load of laundry, giving me time to think about how to handle this. I went upstairs to her room. She was pretending to be asleep on her bed. I went to her side, placed the airplane on the bed and said, “You dropped this.” I started to leave her room, but Rachel bounded out of her bed, sobbing, and ran to hug me.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. Please forgive me.”
I folded her into my arms for a big hug and walked her back to her bed. We talked and worked it all out.
Looking back, apparently, I had sent my little girl to her room without adequate active listening and context. She felt unheard and schemed to float her feelings to me on the paper airplane to get my attention. It worked!
As we talked afterwards in her room, she recounted her perspective. I said, “I understand your anger, but what else were you feeling?”
Anger is funny like that. About 98% of the time, anger is secondary to a more primary feeling. Because anger is the most socially accepted negative feeling we have, we use it to cover unheard, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, worried, and a host of other feelings. Only about 2% of the time is anger the primary feeling. Another way to tag it would be “righteous indignation.” We’re mad because something is just not right. Think a young mother yelling at her toddler in the grocery story because he’s grabbing at things. Think any instance of child neglect, abuse, abandonment. Mostly, righteous indignation occurs when there is a power differential and the victim is helpless.
So, I active listened, validating Rachel’s anger, but asking also, “what else are you feeling?” During the course of our talk, I saw her emotional fever going down. She then could accept my parenting perspective in correcting her behavior, and I helped her talk about ways she could avoid future such difficulties.
For a relationship-building teachable moment with your child, acknowledge her anger, but then find the primary feelings behind the anger by asking, “What else is going on?”
Robert came crashing through the kitchen door and ran through to the family room, where his mom was watching TV while folding laundry.
“Mama, can I go with Adam to the skateboard park? A bunch of us are meeting up there.”
Jodie stopped her folding, paused, and said, “Nope.”
“What? Why not? We won’t be gone long. Adam’s mom can take us. Pleeease,” he begged.
“Robert, I don’t like Adam, and his mom has a sketchy past before she was married. Find someone else to play with.”
“Aww, man, you never let me do anything,” Robert groused before turning on his heel and slamming the door as he stomped outside.
Good parenting is about making good choices. Jodie’s choice was hers to make, but was it a good one? an informed one? Likely not. Had she met Adam? Had she talked to his mom recently? Robert was basically a good kid, good grades, no outstanding warrants (lol). So why did she shut his request down?
Obviously, Jodie was trying to protect her son from possible harm, but at what cost? She’ll likely get the silent treatment from her son for a while. Jodie chose power over relationship with Robert, at least this time.
Kids often try to unconsciously manipulate their parents by coming up with urgent requests at the last moment. Jodie’s first bad choice was responding directly to her son’s request at all. She would have promoted a teachable moment and gotten more information on which to respond by saying something like, “Hold on, son. Take a breath. Give me some details so I can make a good decision.”
She then could have guided Adam through rational decision-making, where he might change his behavior or at least be more informed about the request he was making. Jodie’s not liking Adam at all is really not a part of the equation. Friendships are a human right, not a parental right. Choosing your child’s friends can lead to emotional distance from your child and subterfuge, where he ends up going behind your back. Helping your child make wise decisions, and then being there to catch him if/when he falls, is effective parenting.
My daughter had such a friendship dilemma when she was a teen. After our talking through her needs and feelings about this girl, I told her that she could have a positive influence over her friend, but, the friend could have a negative influence over her. Rachel tested the waters, but the friendship was short-lived.
Can you choose your child’s friends? No, not without risk you your relationship with your child. You can influence his choices by active listening and giving him wise counsel. The end result is a teachable moment from which you both benefit.
Sixteen year old Heather rushes into the kitchen one morning, harried and out of breath.
“Mama, can you please stop and iron my blouse. I want to wear this super cute outfit today, but I’m running out of time.”
Until recently, mom would have stopped fixing breakfast, taken the blouse from Heather, and then rushed to accommodate her frazzled daughter. Uh, why?
Several rationales come to mind. Let’s see. It’s what mothers do. I have to help her get out the door and get to school. I do a better job of ironing than she does. She’ll get upset at me if I don’t do it. Breakfast can be a little late today. I can make time…the list goes on.
Here’s the deal. None of these excuses have any merit. Being a nice and accommodating parent does not always translate into being a good parent. In fact, such accommodation can lead to Heather’s feeling entitled. That is, I can do what I want without consequences.
So, instead of “sure, honey. Let me get that for you,” mom sighs, takes a breath, and replies, “You know what, Heather? That’s not gonna work for me right now. I’m in the middle of putting breakfast on the table. How about you take the time yourself or maybe pick another outfit for today? Then you can iron what you need tonight for you to wear tomorrow without the rush.”
Wow! Can we do that as parents? In fact, yes. Actually, setting healthy boundaries for our children is an essential part of parenting. When you set boundaries, you convey self-respect, responsibility, value, and worth to your children. You also give them opportunity to take responsibility for themselves, accommodate, learn that actions have consequences, and plan ahead. Time crunches and crises are almost always self-induced.
Yes, you can say “no” and mean it. It’s freeing for you as a parent and it’s role modeling a critical quality of healthy relationships for your child. Setting healthy boundaries, active listening their upset and disappointment, and then helping your child adjust accordingly is a great teachable moment for all.
My daughter was 4 years old a long time ago. I was talking to my neighbor over the fence in our yard. Rachel came up to me, tugged on my pant leg, and announced, “I need some attention.” Whoa! I stopped my conversation with my neighbor and gave Rachel the attention she asked for.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if our children asked for our attention in that manner all of the time. Alas, not so.
Molly was on her cell phone with the mother of one of 9 yr. old Alexa’s friends. They were just gossiping. Alexa guessed who her mom was talking to and decided that she wanted to talk to her friend as well. She proceeded to paw at her mom, dramatically her to give her the cell phone so she could say “hi.” Molly got mad.
She asked her neighbor to hold on a sec and turned to her daughter. “If you don’t stop bugging me while I’m on the phone, I will pop you so hard you won’t be able to sit for a week,” she threatened, wagging her finger in Alexa’s face. Alexa stopped, turned dejectedly and shuffled away, whimpering about how mama just doesn’t understand.
In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I note that the concept of attention has an absolute quality about it. That is, either positive attention or negative attention will fill the bill. Sadly, positive attention seems to be much harder, longer getting, and less frequent than negative attention. So, kids naturally find negative ways to fill their attentional needs.
Another visual image I share with readers in chapter four, Children Never Mean What They Say, is this. Imagine that children have 100 parts to them. Whatever type of attention they seek, it will always add up to 100. So, if a child has 12 parts positive attention, by definition she has 88 parts negative attention.
Now, here’s where you come in as the parent. Whatever part you pay attention to grows. So, if you talk to your daughter about the good choices she is making, the positive parts grow from 12 to 14. By definition, her negative parts shrink from 88 to 86. Conversely, your yelling, discounting, ignoring causes the negative to grow and the positive to shrink.
Mom and dad, pay attention. Focus on what your child is doing and saying right while ignoring as much as possible what they are saying and doing wrong. Where correction is called for, talk to your child after all has settled down with a prompting comment such as, “Golly, sweetheart, that wasn’t like you. What else is going on? How do you think this might have turned out better? Such questions get your child’s brain moving back in a positive direction. Paying attention to these details will lead to many teachable moments.
Are chores a sticking point in your home? Do you get that “Ma, do I hafta?” refrain every time you bring chores up? Well, everybody who loves chores raise your hand. Nope. I didn’t think so.
Charlie was the wild child of the Miller’s 3 daughters, ages 2, 8, and 10. Her little sister was Miss Prissy and her older sister was all that, so Charlie got to do her own thing. She was a rough-house tomboy who would prefer tackle to touch football. It landed her in the principal’s office more than once for being too rough during gym class.
Mom Charlene, after whom Charlie was named, was firm to her daughter that Saturday morning, as the Miller family arose.
“Yes, sweetheart, you hafta.” She explained. “Saturday mornings around here are family clean-up, and, well, you’re part of the family.”
“Then…I want a divorce, you know, from the family. That way I don’t have to do stupid chores on Saturday mornings. Tommy and I are building a tree house today and we’ve got to get started, like, right now.”
Charlene chuckled to herself and then sighed, “Baby, you know it doesn’t work that way. Besides, we would all miss you terribly,” she added, as she moved in to tickle her daughter’s sides. Charlie squealed and then she got out of her bed.
Chores should not only be a part of the fabric of family life, they also help to form lasting bonds, build responsibility, and are a source of accountability, consistency, and pride.
As soon as your children are able to walk, they are able to help with house clean-up. At first, with a 2 year old, you pick up her stuffed animals with her and show her where to store them. With practice, you step away and she picks up more of the load. Not only does this activity have family benefits, it reinforces her worth, improves her eye-hand coordination, and gives her bragging rights on a job well done. With older children, use a targeted family meeting to outline Saturday morning chores and then divvy them up. Parents determine the quality of chore completion and can require a re-do if necessary.
Chore completion is outside of allowance or other pay. We don’t get paid for doing our part of family clean-up. Also, chores are outside of daily straightening, organizing, and order. Chore completion can be a part of the “yuck” factor in your family, or it can be a bonding factor. Regardless, yeah, ya hafta.
Amy glared at her mom and announced, “Leave me alone!” Her mom stopped in her tracks, at the edge of the door to Amy’s bedroom. As she looked, stunned, at her 12 year old daughter, she pondered, “Where has my little girl gone?”
Well, mom, your daughter Amy has begun her journey into adolescence. You know, that’s a foreign land where grown-ups are the enemy. German developmental psychologists identify Sturm Und Drang as the hallmark of adolescence. Storm and stress! As parents, we see this storm and stress and ask, “Is that my teen?”
Up until about age 10, parents are mostly the best thing ever. Our children love us and show that love in many ways. In healthy, loving families, they want to grow up to be just like mommy and daddy. Developmentally, ages 10 to 12 are the latency ages. That is, not children, but not teens. A newer term is “tweenager.” However you name it, for the parents, the jury’s out. Like others her age, Amy is beginning to find herself. The first place teens go is to not mom or dad. As children, they want to be just like mom and dad. As teens, they want to be just opposite mom and dad.
All I can encourage parents of teens to do is to just hang on. The ride will be bumpy, but the journey worth it. Be good role models and hold on to your values. Set healthy limits, stick to them, and catch your teen being good. The Sturm Und Drang of adolescence is the furnace of events within which their personal identity is forged.
Amy’s mom was just going to tell her that dinner was ready and to come to the table to eat. With Amy’s abrupt words, mom now has a choice. She could look at her daughter with sadness or anger and just silently turn around and leave her in her room. She could throw her hands up in a time-out gesture and confront her with, “Whoa! Time-out, young lady. You don’t talk to your mother that way. Get your butt downstairs for dinner.” While both of these options are warranted, neither will get to the heart of the matter. Both will just put more distance in the relationship.
Give Amy time to realize her harshness by starting with, “Excuse me?” If that prompt doesn’t generate a recognition of the line crossed, then follow with observation and active listening, such as, “Wow, Amy, this isn’t like you. What’s going on?” If you get silence or a short, curt answer to your essay question, make it a multiple choice question. You know your daughter well enough to come up with some options. She will then likely come to the table with you, even if in silent protest.
Is that my teen? Well, yes, it is, but just for now. Hang on. Keep the communication channels open, and your prickly caterpillar will one day be a beautiful, engaging butterfly.
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.