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?”
Is there any time during the day more important for kids than bedtime? I don’t think so. Actually, it’s not a time, but a process. It’s a one-on-one with a parent and parents can take turns. It’s a special time, with each child in the family having a separate, designated bed time. In family life, it’s a settle down time.
“Okay, sweetheart, at the end of this show, turn off the television and let’s get started going to bed.” Mom prompted 8 year old Bethany, giving her lead time to make the transition.
“But, mama, what about…?” Bethany began to protest, but her mom cut her off. “Uh, uh, uh. Don’t do this, darlin’. You know the rules.”
“Yes, Mama.” Bethany turned her attention back to the t.v. to squeeze every ounce out of her day before going to bed.
Well intentioned parents teach their children early to put themselves to bed. What??? And give up such quality time with your child?
Other parents let their child play, irritate their brother, watch t.v., or game on their iPad or computer until the very last minute. Why allow a child to ramp up right before trying to go to sleep?
Other parents tolerate an abundance of stall tactics from children who don’t want to go to sleep.
Settle down time with your child is a precious gift, both from you to her, but also from her to you. With both my kids as they grew up and now with my grandkids when I’m called to duty, I try to allow up to 30 minutes of settle down time with each child. That’s time for talking about our days, active listening, telling or reading stories, being playful and funny.
As settle down time is closing, especially if I notice my child stalling, I shift to a more proactive focus. With preschoolers, I talk about the snuggle bunny who helps children be still and be silent. Even hyperactive kids will fall asleep within 3 minutes if they are still and silent. My snuggle bunny is a glistening white bunny who likes to snuggle next to the small of your back. However, he will only stay there if you are completely still and silent. You can feel a warmth there that tells you he is there, but if you try to look, he will scoot away and you will never see him. What is settle down time? It’ time for T L C – talking, listening, and cuddling.
A coin has two sides, heads and tails. Neither is better than the other. They are just different. However, the coin could not be without both sides. The sides make the coin. Such is a parent’s love for their child.
“My little Joey is such a angel…when he is sleeping.” Amanda sipped her coffee before continuing with her friend, Rose. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my little boy so much, but, whew, is he a handful sometimes.” Rose commiserated with her friend.
“Sometimes I just have to jerk a knot in him, you know, give him consequences for his bad choices. I feel so guilty after he gives me those soulful, puppy dog eyes when I put him in the corner.”
Rose chimed in, “Amanda, don’t beat yourself up. You’re a great mom. You listen to Joey when he’s upset and trying to get out of his punishment. But you also help him realize that he has made a bad choice and that there are consequences for his actions.”
“I know,” Amanda sighed, “but still…”
These moms love their children. They know that the parenting coin has two sides, both empathy and confrontation. With empathy, you teach your child that they have a right to their feelings, and you empower them to make good choices. With confrontation, you teach them that there are consequences to their choices that have impact both on them and on those around them. Both empathy and confrontation are required from us parents to prepare our children for their adult world.
Many children today seem to suffer from false empowerment. That is, they have a sense of entitlement with feeling of impunity. I can do what I want, with no consequences. Parents of these children tend to be permissive, wanting their children to have full and enriching experiences, with few or no limits to their actions. Such permissive parenting can lead to selfishness, lack of empathy, insecurity, and potential bullying.
In Chapter 3 of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I offer that children will always test the limits. However, they do so to be sure that the limits are there. Being in charge is every child’s worst nightmare, leading to fear and anxiety.
For you, the parent, to be in charge, you need to flip a coin. Both empathy and confrontation, the two sides of your parenting coin, need to be used to help your child find their place in the world.
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 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.
Do you like surprises? Some people do. Some do not. Most who don’t like surprises have some difficulty with self-consciousness, being the center of attention, or losing control. Others have had a bad experience with surprises and the memory lingers.
Transitions are not necessarily surprises. In fact, most transitions are very normal. However, we can even be thrown off our game by normal, expected transitions.
For school children, normal daily transitions include from asleep to awake, from home to school, from classroom to connections or lunch, from school to home, and from awake back to asleep. Sounds like normal stuff, but the issues most children will find often occur around or because of these and other, unexpected changes.
Eight year old Joey was a bear to get up in the morning. Every day mom felt like she was wrestling an alligator. She started being pleasant and low-key. “Hey, fella. It’s another glorious day. The sun is shining and your friends are waiting to say ‘hi’ to you at the bus stop. Let’s get some good breakfast and you can be on your way.”
Every morning, mom started out being pleasant, but Joey will have none of it. “Awww, ma. Just a few more minutes. I promise I will get up then.” And the battle begins. Some days Joey complies. Other day’s mom resorts to yelling and threatening.
For mornings and other transitions for your children, consider giving them a 5 to 10 minute heads up. First, in a quiet time away from transitions, talk to your child about how transitions are going. Active listen his feelings about change and share your frustrations with helping him adapt. Conclude with, “Sooo, looks like we have a problem and neither one of us likes how this has been going. Any suggestions?”
The “heads up” rule is a universal starting point. Adjust bed time and awakening time to account for the extra 5 to 10 minutes transition. Minimize conflict by pre-planning. For example, help him get school clothes and book bag ready the night before. Make decisions about breakfast with input the night before. Smooth out other potential wrinkles ahead of time to allow for an easy transition. Finally, mark out a trial period for all of the changes and identify reward and consequence based on your child’s efforts and response.
Transitions can be tough, but the “heads up” rule can help them go better for all of you.
“What? Oh, sure, honey. Yeah.” Her dad was peering intently at his computer screen, while 8 year old Alexa was rubbing her elbow. She didn’t think her daddy was listening, but he said he was. So, she went on.
“Why do they call it my funny bone? There’s nothing funny about knocking it on the door frame and getting all tingly.” She paused and peered at her father, as her dad’s focus continued glued to his screen.
“It hurts, Dad. I think I broke it.”
“Uh, huh.” Was the only response she got from her dad. Alexa sighed, rubbing her elbow, and concluded, “Oh, never mind.” She then walked away.
So, Alexa’s dad may have been hearing her, but he certainly was not listening. He was in his own world where Alexa didn’t exist or, at best, was an intrusion. No parent intentionally puts their child in that position of invisibility.
Hearing is a neurological phenomenon, where sound waves enter the ear, connect with the auditory nerve, convert to neurotransmission, and are sent to the brain for interpretation. It’s medically very elegant. One of God’s ways of alerting us to our surroundings. But in relationship, hearing another is only the tip of the iceberg.
In the ocean, we only see 10% of a floating iceberg. 90% is underwater. Similarly, hearing is only 10% of relationship. Listening is the other 90%. Listening generates interaction with your child.
If daddy had been interested and really wanted to hear Alexa, He would have done several things immediately after she came to him. He would have paused his computer program and turned the screen blank.
He would have turned from his desk and faced Alexa straight on at her eye level. If he was unsure of her comments, he would have asked for clarification. Seeing that she had physical pain, having bumped her elbow, he would have asked to examine the injury. Knowing by her words and actions that she had an emotional fever, he would have gathered Alexa into his arms for a hug and then used active listening to help her understand her feelings. As he saw Alexa’s emotional fever lessen, he might have turned to the funny bone comment and had a teachable moment with his daughter. Listening is much more than hearing. Are you listening to your spouse and children?
Did you know? Parents come in all shapes and sizes. There are dictators, push-overs, just friends, overbearing, whatever, and absent parents. Most parents try to do the best they can do. Some are overwhelmed and just trying to keep their heads above water. What kind of parent are you?
Maggie and I had Rachel after 7 years of marriage. We planned our family and were ready, or so we thought. Rachel ended up having the colic, probably for 4-6 weeks, but she played it for 4 months. At our wit’s end, we sought help from specialists at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. Only the best for our little girl. The doctor took 5 minutes with our daughter and 20 minutes with us. After giving us assurances that our little girl was fine, he noted, “You know, guys, Rachel is now one third of your family. She deserves one third of your time and attention.”
Wow! That comment hit me like a ton of bricks. You mean, I can have time for myself and for my wife? Yes, you can. In fact, such time adds to the quality of time you have with your children. In Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, the author makes a case for being all in with your child. She says, “demanding perfection and mastery, at all costs to you and to a balanced life, is worth it for your child to accomplish great things.” Well, no thanks. The price is too high.
Others prefer the role of “the soccer mom.” These parents seem to be at their children’s beckoned call, shuttling them to soccer games and other events in hopes of giving them “a well-rounded childhood.” Also at great cost to you. Neither extreme provides a balance of activity and responsibility among all family members.
Other authors, Elizabeth and Charles Schmitz, in their book, Building the Love that Lasts: The Seven Surprizing Secrets of Successful Marriage, advocate for keeping the marriage strong above all else. In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I describe a Plexiglas pyramid, where above the point is God. As we are in relationship with Him, we have healthy resources for ourselves. As we are in relationship with ourselves, we can be there for our spouse. As the marriage is healthy, we can be there for our children. These pyramid relationships provide the balance of activity and responsibility within which all family members thrive. Where are your priorities, and what kind of parent are you?
It’s true! Parenting is a 24/7/365 job, with no time off, no vacation, no breaks. Remember when that little new born was laying on your chest right after their birth? Despite the pains of childbirth, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that it’s just “pressure,” new parents feel an understandable mix of joy, terror, excitement, pressure, relief, and dread.
Jody was sweating, her hair matted, and her heart racing after just having given birth to Hannah. She reached out to the nurse who held tiny Hannah and extended her to place in Jody’s awaiting arms. New daddy, Tommy, leaned in smiling, witnessing the blessing of their new family. Jody looked back and forth from Hannah to Tommy. Terrifying questions flooded her mind. Oh… my… gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into? Can I do this? Am I ready? This little bundle of human being is totally helpless and completely my responsibility.
It’s also true that raising children takes a village. We lucky parents have the available resources of our children’s grandparents, extended family, neighbors, co-ops, play groups, day cares, church groups, and many other, personalized resources. Being “alone” with your newborn is avoidable, but you have to reach out. You have to ask. When our children were home, Maggie and I developed the concept of what we called tag team parenting. When one of us was done, exhausted, at our wit’s end, we could reach out and tag the other, “You’re it.” Tag other people in your lives when there’s too much to do.
Other things to do when there’s too much to do include delegate, organize, make lists, plan ahead, streamline, and make time to chill out. Many new parents race around doing everything that was on hold while the baby was awake. Do those things with your new baby and she will get used to household routines and not scream for your attention endlessly. Rule of thumb for new moms. When Hannah is sleeping, Jody is sleeping, or at least resting, too. If you don’t give yourself time for your needs and feelings, called self-care, your time for your baby, called other care, will be less meaningful for both of you. When there’s too much to do, go for a balance between self-care and other-care.