This article first appeared in the November-December 2003 issue of Smart Parenting magazine
Michelle, an 11-year-old girl, opens her presents at her birthday party. She receives girly stuff from her classmates, educational presents from her titos and titas and from her grandparents, gift certificates for books and art supplies. The last gift is from her mom. With anticipation, she opens it revealing two bookmarks. Michelle’s eyes brim with tears as she says, “Mom, I can’t believe you were listening!” The crowd is dumb-founded! To them, it seems like a simple gift.
Rewind to two weeks ago when mom was on the computer and Michelle was on the phone with a classmate, proclaiming that there were these two bookmarks that would be perfect for her new Harry Potter book.
This is called the power of listening. This mom knows what it means to actively communicate. Because she listened well, she knows what will make her child happy -— and when something is amiss. She is aware that with kids, what is not said is just as important as what is said.
Communicating is a process. You cannot effectively talk to your children without listening. Conversely, you cannot just listen and not respond.
Communicating well is a hard lesson to learn, as it often needs to be learned and re-learned as our kids grow. Each phase our kids go through will require us to listen, speak and respond accordingly.
How to Really Listen When we keep communicating with our children, we validate them. It teaches them that we respect them and that we know what they have to say is important. How then can we improve our communication skills? How can we be better active listeners? What can we do to make sure our children continue to communicate with us? Here are some suggestions:
1. “Sense” your children. Activate all your senses when you listen to your children. Sensing in itself has multiple meanings. For one, this means that when you communicate with them, you use eye contact. In terms of body language, you need to touch them when they speak. Even in anger, you must communicate that even if there is anger, there is love as well. So the words might communicate anger, but the touch says, “No matter what, I love you.”
2. Let them speak. Give your kids the space and the place to speak. Mealtimes are rich moments for families to speak to one another. Have conversations in the car, on trips, on the way to school, while doing chores, while exercising, etc. If this seems tedious to you, don’t forget that communicating is not just about verbal language. Sometimes just being together side by side is powerful in itself.
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3. Allow your kids to express their opinions. Empowerment also means allowing your children to express their views, even if they aren’t aligned with ours. I often remind myself that the path to self-discovery is a journey of many miles. You create a life well lived, it is not born. Opinions and views contribute to that creation, even incorrect ones. You’ll be amazed at how open your children will be to you if you allow them to argue with you fairly! The word fair is key. In arguing opinions, never presume age is equal to wisdom. And never let them feel that you won’t love them if they don’t agree with you. Be open to the possibility that it is you who are misguided.
4. Let them feel their emotions fully. With young children, empowerment also comes from allowing them to feel all their strong emotions without censor. Having strong emotions sometimes can be frightening so it’s important to communicate to your child that you are on his side. Refrain from telling your child it’s bad to cry or be angry. Instead, focus on exploring the cause of his feelings. Discuss what he can do next time he feels the same way. Give him techniques he is comfortable with to regulate his response to his feelings. This is what it means to sometimes “fill in the blanks.” Make trying moments, moments for lifetime learning.
5. Speak up yourself. If you actively engage your kids in conversation, you will eventually pass on communication skills that will strengthen family bonds. People often comment, for example, how verbal we are as a family. Setting up communication opportunities, we’ve invented secret codes among ourselves. We like to create baby names for each other. At mealtimes, we talk about what happened during the day. At night, I sing the same songs my mother sang to me. At prayer time, I let the kids lead to see what their concerns are, to find out how they are faring in their peer groups, and to see what matters to them.
6. Take non-verbal cues. It is non-verbal language that is hardest to learn. To know your child’s expressions and body language requires attention to detail and a genuine interest in your child’s process of development. It will take the greatest sensing from you. I know a mother who knows immediately if her daughter had a good day in school just by the way she carries her school bag! Some children retreat when they are sad. Some escape through friends. Some children take time to process their feelings. You will have to find out your own child’s processing.
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Communicating with our children can be difficult but amazingly fulfilling. And it is comforting to know that if we get lost, all we need to do is to just sit still and plain listen.
My daughter once asked me to sit with her. Ever the teacher, I immediately asked if she wanted me to read to her. She said, “No, mom, just sit with me.” I plodded on, “Would you want to play with your dolls with me? Or maybe make some donuts with your play dough?” She was just as persistent, “No, mom, just sit with me.” “How about some music?” I pushed further, “We can play the nursery rhymes CD and sing together!” She merely patted the space beside her and said, “Just sit, mom.”
Not content with all I offered, I changed tactic and said, “How about we set the table?” She said, “We can do it later. For now, let’s just sit.” And I finally did -— sat with her hand in mine in silence -— and it was the richest conversation we’ve ever had.