One of the most valuable lessons that I learned from my dad was the art of cool-headed, active listening.
He wasn’t one to jump into lectures or to give unsolicited advice. He didn’t yell or fly off the handle. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t get clear messages from him when I had crossed a line or needed redirection. It means that he was able to do it in a way that communicated the message without emotional over-reactions or adult tantrums.
He also made a point to try to understand my feelings and positions, even if he disagreed with them. This created a deeper connection between us.
He may not have realized it, but he was modeling a parenting strategy that psychologists laud. I was motivated to make decisions based on my positive relationship with him rather than on what potential consequences might arise if I disobeyed.
Don’t get me wrong, kids need limits (see my video about setting rules here.) But researchers say kids who make fear-based decisions are more likely to look for loopholes or to be sneaky as adults. This is the “letter of the law mentality”. Our goal should be to raise adults that choose to do the right thing because of their internal values (which they will learn from you) and sense of self. Not because they are afraid of getting caught.
How do we create a relationship with our kids that fosters this type of connection?
The single most effective way to create solid relationships is to listen and attempt to understand their world. When we know what motivates a person to make a specific choice, we are in a much better position to work together towards a common goal (note: this works in marriages and work relationships too).
Truth: Kids are much more likely to make positive choices when they are out of your sight because they value their connection and relationship with you rather than because they fear you or fear getting into trouble (Department of Health and Human Services).
How To Show You’re ACTUALLY Listening
1) We want to be seen AND heard
Be present during conversation. Put down any distractions and turn and look at your child when you are talking. This shows that you want to be actively engaged and also prevents you from missing any nonverbal communication signs that would go unnoticed if your head is in a book or your iPhone. Don’t insist that they maintain eye-contact with you. Oftentimes people look away when they are feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed. Be glad that they are talking, and focus on your active listening.
2) Wait for the complete message to be communicated
Don’t interrupt with questions. Allow your child to say what they have to say first and then go back to clarify. If you are busy thinking of your own response, you may miss something important in their delivery. You also run the risk of over-taking the conversation and causing your child to shut down. I often suggest keeping a notebook handy to write down any thoughts or questions that come up while active listening. Once your child has finished, go back and paraphrase or summarize what you heard (this is called reflective listening or mirroring) to make sure that you understood correctly.
3) Keep an open mind
Trust me: Your child already knows how you feel about most things and can guess your stance on their personal involvement with smoking, homework, and chores. During active listening, you want to withhold judgment and provide a safe space for your child to sift through their own thoughts. If your child says something that concerns you, keep your cool and gather more information. This will allow you to understand the complete picture and figure out what support your child needs.
4) Don’t dictate your own solutions
Keep your responses objective and help your child explore solutions and ideas on their own. Use the “Socratic Method” of learning, which fosters critical thinking. With Socratic thinking, the focus is on giving thought-provoking questions, not answers.
Kids often bring up situations that their friends (or “friends”) are going through in order to gauge how you would react. If your teen says, “My friend is cheating on online schoolwork assignments”, don’t respond that she is an immoral loser or that your child should find new friends. Instead say something like, “That class must be really hard. It can seem like cheating is a good option in the short run. What might be the drawbacks when the class is finished?”
Remember, the only way to truly know your child’s thoughts and feelings is to create an environment where they will share.
5) Express Appreciation and Accept Feedback
If you want your child to have open communication channels with you, you need to verbally reward that behavior. Tell your child that you are proud of them for bringing concerns to you and that you want to support them in life’s challenges.
Ask them how you did in listening. Do they feel heard? Do they need anything else from you? Are there follow-up steps that need to be taken? By modeling openness and the ability to take constructive feedback, you are setting an example that shows that it’s okay to learn and grow.
If we are lucky, our relationships with our family members can be some of the deepest, most meaningful connections that we foster while here, on Earth. These are the people that know us the longest and often the best. These relationships change over time, but the above principles hold true, despite the stages of life you may find yourself in. My dad continues to be an inspiration to me and I feel lucky to count him as a mentor, a role model, and a friend.