Are You Listening?

A child told me how much she liked her school counselor. I asked what she liked about her and the answer was, “She really listens to me when I talk to her.” She further explained that when she talks to her parents, they always start to tell her what she should do about whatever it is she is talking about. The school counselor just listens to what she has to say.

Listen is a word that can have different meanings. As parents thinking about children, it can be a request that they pay attention – as in “Listen to me.” It can also be a reprimand such as, “You’re not listening,” which may really mean you are not doing what I tell you to do. Listening is a big part of children’s life since it is a major way they learn and develop.

Listening is also a big part of being a parent. Children may think we are not listening when we don’t do what they want, and at times we would rather not listen to them. But even when we do listen, we don’t always hear them. That seemed to have been the complaint of the young person quoted. She felt her parents were more interested in telling her what to do than in hearing what she had to say.

Yet hearing our children is part of learning about them and how to best respond as parents. Hearing children means trying to understand what they are telling us, which in the early years is mainly through their behavior.

Sometimes that behavior is not to our liking, such as not sharing, or pushing another child. But especially in the early years, such behavior can tell us that they need our help in learning social behavior. They may be saying that sharing is still too hard, or that the other child was too close for comfort. Such behavior tells us where children are in their development and how we can help them learn.

Behavior is children’s means of communication, and it helps in various situations to ask oneself if a child could express what he means in words, what would he be telling us? Sometimes the meaning is quite clear as when young children express anger physically by striking out. Too often our response may be to correct the behavior in which the feelings have been expressed rather than address the feelings themselves.

When we let children know that we do hear the feelings behind the behavior, they feel understood – meaning their feelings will be considered. This in turn helps them hear our correction of the behavior in which their feelings were expressed. Beyond that, it helps children begin to identify their feelings, a first step in the ability to control the way they are expressed.

As children get older and more adept at verbal expression, they may tell us more directly what they are feeling – at times even saying things we may not like to hear. Even then, our response may be to the words rather than to listen for what may be the real meaning. Like the old saying, “what I said is not what I meant.”

Children’s behavior can tell us if our expectations are too high, if something is too hard for a child who may be telling us he needs help. It is by listening and hearing what children are trying to tell us through their behavior and later in their words, that parents learn where they are in their development and what is needed from them as parents to help children learn.