Perhaps you are one of those people who can remember when, as a child, you desperately wanted to be heard.
"Uh-huh," your parents muttered mindlessly, as they rushed off to work, diapered a sibling or tried to read a newspaper. Imagine how much more deaf the world must seem to children today, growing up in an era where the concept of "busy" has grown by exponential leaps.
We're busy, yes, and that means it is more essential than ever to keep in emotional contact with our children. But how can we expect them to talk to us -- to trust us -- if we don't listen?
Listening, really listening and validating what we hear our children say, sounds so simple. Yet, as any good therapist can tell you, many, many people grow up without feeling that there was an adult in their life who ever took the time to listen to what they had to say. When we don't feel listened to, understood, responded to and validated -- even before we can talk -- we develop ways of protecting ourselves from the pain of feeling ignored and unimportant.
These ways of self-protection can become the roots of many of the qualities we least admire, including selfishness, greed and violence.
Feeling ignored and unimportant also contributes to feelings of inadequacy, lack of confidence, and worthlessness, to name a few, which can lead to depression, underachieving, anxiety disorders and myriad other far too common complaints. In fact, it is amazing how much lousy, aberrant behavior initially arises out of an individual's healthy attempt to be heard, respected and treated as important and unique.
We're both mothers, and we know that it isn't easy to squeeze in time to listen patiently to our children. That's why we've decided it's high time to establish a new "time" to add to the old staples of "family time," "bedtime," "dinner time" and "floor time": listening time.
Listening time should be a safe time for children to talk. It is not the same as engaging children in conversation, or asking them to listen to adult conversation. It is a time for us to really listen to them.
Finding this kind of time is a challenge. In one of our houses, bedtime has evolved into listening time. "What should we talk about," asks the 6-year-old, every night, waiting for the response: "It's up to you."
There, at the edge of bedtime, time ticking by, he brings up the subjects that are really on his mind. The default subject is Beanie Babies, but sometimes it is a problem at school, an issue with a friend, a feeling, often a fear. Sometimes, he just talks about how proud he is about something he has accomplished or the discovery of a new interest. Whatever the subject, it is a time for him to run ideas or concerns past a parent.
At the other house, 7-year-old twins have made teeth-brushing time into listening time, which can stretch into an hour, as somehow, this feels like the ideal opportunity to pour out the day's most compelling moments, or come up with burning questions like "In ancient Egypt, how did they make the escape routes to get out of the tombs?"
Another good time for listening is in the car, on the way to school or a lesson or a play date. The car works especially well with an older child, even teenagers. Picking kids up from a sports or social event is prime time for grabbing a listenable moment.
As any parent can tell you, there are times when you may be asked to listen exactly when you're most preoccupied with something else -- like a phone call. This is tough, but sometimes, just go with the flow, end the call and let listening time begin.
Here are guidelines for good parental listening:
Before you start, try to recall how it felt to be a child yourself. Then, observe your children's rhythms and pinpoint the times when they seem to be most comfortable talking to you. It would be nice if it is a time when you are not exhausted, but it may not work out that way.
Leave time for certain activities, e.g., bedtime, to take much longer than the activity itself really takes, allowing for listening time. Really listening means saying "Tell me more" or "What do you think or feel about that?" A simple "Oh . . ." can be inviting. Then it means acknowledging a child's feelings, validating them by saying, "That makes a lot of sense that you would feel left out when . . . " or "That makes a lot of sense that you don't like school when your teacher shouts at the class" or "That really is a funny joke." Don't say "uh-huh." Any 4-year-old can tell that is just a way of saying that you are not interested and not listening.
Validating what you hear communicates to your child that he is important and has worthwhile things to say. This is crucial to a child's self-esteem. Few rebels or criminals could be described as having high self-esteem.
Listening does not mean giving immediate advice, or being judgmental. Even if you don't agree or have a rule to enforce, contain yourself. There probably is some sense in what your child is saying to you. Listen for it and validate it.
Wait until your child is "talked out" before gently adding your own thoughts. Once a child, or anyone, has felt really listened to, you'd be amazed at his ability to really listen to what you have to say in response.
Be sure you ponder what you have learned about your child. Practiced daily, making time to listen can do wonders, for a child, parent, family, and for our entire society, and can be one of our greatest tools as we fight problems created by our culture.
Deborah Fox is a therapist; Nadine Epstein is a writer and illustrator.