You can’t learn anything with your mouth open.
That was a mantra my dad delivered regularly to my younger, chattier and sometimes defiant self. But as important as that advice was to heed forty years ago, it became even more relevant as I raised my children.
As parents, we get accustomed to guiding, directing and advising, to delivering sage advice meant to protect our children from harm. But these efforts can sometimes morph into a pattern of over talking and under listening. If you want to stay in the information loop with your children, a strong first step is to resist the urge to talk before hearing what they have to say and validating their thoughts and feelings.
Sounds simple. But it’s not necessarily easy to do.
Take a minute to reflect on some of the most difficult conversations you’ve had with your kids. Consider how they started—probably with their description of a troubling or upsetting exchange with a teacher, peer, a bully on the bus or at work. Now recall (honestly) in how many of those instances your first comment was some version of this:
Wow, that must have felt awful. I’m sorry you had to go through it. Tell me more about what happened and how it felt for you.
If you’re like a lot of parents (and don’t beat yourself up if you are), you can count them on one hand if at all. That’s because our hard-wired tendency is to spring into action and offer advice, tell them it’s going to be okay, take charge, put on a red cape and have at it. But taking the time to hear their concerns and fears is the best way to start, because that will inform what the best next steps are for them.
An article on communicating with children by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says, “Be attentive, don’t interrupt, and ask follow-up questions. Sometimes the less you talk, the more your adolescent will ask what you think.”
Children want to be heard and understood. Our job as parents is to equip them to solve problems on their own, not teach them that they need our guidance every step of the way. By taking the time to listen and ask probing questions, we can show that we believe in their ability to navigate through life’s rough patches. Swooping in for the rescue might feel good to us in the moment, but is merely a reflection of our own wounds and fears—and not necessarily the best path toward empowering our kids. You wouldn’t expect your doctor to start prescribing medicine before asking questions and hearing what’s ailing you. Although that dynamic lacks the heart connection of a parent-child relationship, the lesson is not lost.
Practicing this when our kids are younger will serve to strengthen the bond of communication as they grow older and the stakes get higher—when they confront increasingly complex and impactful situations and decisions. We can’t guide them if we don’t know what they’re facing, and they won’t share if they anticipate a litany of directives and judgments. That’s not to say we can’t impart our wisdom–the natural order of things means we should be able to hand down some of our own hard-earned lessons. But our kids are living in a different reality than we experienced, and they want us to be present to that reality. A tough thing to do when we’re talking.
So, the next time your child shares information, try taking a moment of silence and see what happens. You might learn a lot.