One thing you can do as a parent that will help your relationship with your child is to really listen to them. This was one of the key pieces of advice given to me after I spent two years interviewing parents of successful children. I wanted to know the secrets of good parenting and so I set out to find these out not knowing I would eventually write a book. Listening, really listening is an essential skill not only in good parenting but also in any relationship. When you really listen to someone, particularly your child, they feel valued. Everyone wants to feel valued.
I have to admit, I was not good at this skill until I learned how to do it properly. Before I learned how to listen, I would be talking to a person and as they were talking I would be formulating my response and not really listening. My children would come to talk to me and I was eager to jump in with advice and often interrupted them to make sure they knew how I felt about what they were talking about. Never realizing that by doing this, I was not really listening to them. All children need someone to talk who will really listen. If you do not learn how to listen, they will go to someone else. They desperately want you, as their parent, to be the person they can come to however, parents are not often educated on how to do this.
While teaching for over the past ten years, I also sponsored a class called PEER. PEER is an organization at schools that trains students in the school to listen and help other students out. It is an alternative to their guidance counselor if a student doesn’t feel comfortable talking to an adult. We are associated with the Department of Social Services, and we work with social workers. One of the great things about the program is that the social worker assigned to the school helps train the students on listening skills. Over the years, I have learned so much from this training. I have learned to be an active listener and it has made me a much better parent, spouse and friend.
Active listening is actually easy to do. You just have to make a conscious effort to do it. How many times have your children or spouse came into the room to talk to you and you are busy do something else? You pretend to listen and say a lot of “ahas,” but you are not giving that person your full attention.
In PEER, we are taught the SOLAR approach to listening. SOLAR stands for S - squarely facing the client, O - openness of posture (don’ have your arms crossed), L - leaning forward (slightly), E - eye contact, R – relaxed. You are showing the person with your body that you are present in the discussion and value them.
We also learned other techniques like, paraphrasing back what they say to check for understanding to make sure you know how they are feeling. For example, “it sounds like you are upset with your teacher because . . .” We also learn not to pass judgment at all about what they tell us. This is hard as a parent when they come tell you things about their friends. You really have to try to not pass judgment and go crazy when they tell you things. Just listen.
When they are done, the next technique is to use questions that will help them figure out a solution if there is a problem. In PEER, we never give advice; we just help them figure out on their own solutions. This way they cannot blame anyone else for the results. This can be a very powerful learning tool for your child. Learning to come up with their own solutions to problems will help them in life. If you are always fixing things for them, they do not learn to stand on their own two feet. As a parent I know I still feel the need to impart my wisdom on them, and I do from time to time. So next time your child comes to talk to you, stop what you are doing, the wash, the dinner, whatever it is, and really listen. Make them feel like they are the most important thing at that moment.
Another one of the lessons I learned in PEER is that children may not be willing to open up to you right away. If you ask, “How are you doing?” the answer is usually “fine.” They won’t just tell you everything they are feeling when you ask them, particularly boys. You may have to “take them fishing”. I don’t mean literally but it could be the activity you do to get them talking. What I mean by “take them fishing” is you need to do an activity with them and while you are doing the activity, talk to them. They are more apt to open up to you while doing an activity and not realizing they are having a conversation. It can be anything from coloring to actually fishing. Find out what they like to do and do it with them. I even played Guitar Hero through Xbox just to connect with my son. We do this technique in PEER when we mentor the middle school students. We go over to their school twice a month and we found that we had to do an activity with them to get them talking. Try it. It really works and it is fun.
By keeping these high standards when it comes to dealing with our children, we keep that constant line of communication open where our children feel free to express themselves and tell us what is on their mind. Research also supports this fact, showing that in school students felt valued when a teacher listened and cared about them. This was more important to their ability to learn than the teaching itself.
Listen to your children. Let them know that they can always come to you with anything and that you will not judge them or condemn them. Let them know you may not be happy they did what they did but they can always talk to you. As a parent, you can’t be too tired or too busy to listen.