How to Really Listen to Your Child

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 1/7/16 11:05 AM

Not long ago, I read Rachel Macy Stafford’s article posted on Positive Parenting Solutions and entitled The Single Most Important Parenting Action We Can Do Today. I was drawn in by the title. What could it be? I wasn’t surprised to learn that the article was about parents listening to children. The five pieces of advice made perfect sense to me and seemed right on target:

  1. Stop moving and stop doing when they speak to you.
  2. Respect their words.
  3. Let them speak for themselves whenever possible.
  4. Let them be the expert of something.
  5. Pause before responding when troubling information is shared.

But what really got me thinking was, “If it is really so simple as just listening, why is it so hard to do? Why is it so common for children, whether 3 or 16, to not feel heard and thereby feel that their voice doesn’t matter? Why do children sometimes feel it is worse to talk to parents than keep quiet?" The fact of the matter is listening is harder than it sounds. Why?

Being Present and the Art of Listening

One reason listening is so hard is that we as adults are so darn busy. We communicate, “I am too busy to listen,” even when we think we are present with our children. Often, we are doing several things at once. If we are at home, we might be looking at emails on a phone, preparing a meal, doing the dishes or laundry, picking up messes, or sorting the mail. The child who has something to say is following us around trying to get our attention. We might ask the occasional question, but not make eye contact because we are multitasking. It’s hard to stay focused on the task at hand and the child’s chatter while also thinking about our to-do lists. But, it is simply not possible to do this and have a child feel really heard.

Sometimes, we aren’t actually doing anything else while we are listening, but our mind is focused elsewhere. Clearing our minds to listen is in some ways more challenging. But, children notice when we are only “sort of” present. We need to try hard to push out the many mental pressures we have at any given time and make room for open-minded, focused listening. Take a deep breath, close your eyes for a minute, and then focus on your child. It doesn’t hurt to explain to your child, “I want to clear my mind so I can focus on you.”

Our crazily paced world has us thinking that if we are sitting down on a comfy couch just listening to a child, it is somehow not enough. We might think that if we have the child’s attention, we should use it as a chance to help with homework or build skills. Or, we might think we are being nice when we offer to play a game. We need to give ourselves permission to just be present, mentally and physically, for our children.

Children pick their moments when they are ready to talk and if you don’t seize that moment and listen, it will be gone forever. If you try to seize that moment and continue another activity, your child will at best feel half-heard and the task at hand will be half-heartedly done. We need to learn to say to ourselves that it is actually more important to drop everything and listen.

As Stafford also points out, it is helpful to identify the “right” time to be available. Observe when your child feels the most like talking. Encourage a routine by being very available at that peak time. I don’t mean to set up a formal schedule. Let the child’s patterns show you when he or she likes to connect naturally. For me, it was right before my daughter went to bed. I would inevitably be on my laptop, engrossed in my work, when she would wander in to the living room or kitchen. I knew I better turn off that computer immediately, smile, greet, and basically wait. Even asking a question like, “How was your day?” could ruin the magic that would happen if I just seemed very available. Often I was rewarded by a conversation that helped me better know my child and what was going on in her life.

In his TEDTalk, 5 Ways to Listen Better, Julian Treasure says, “Conscious listening creates understanding.” What a gift it is to be able to connect with our children in this way.

Being a Very Measured, Calm Responder

Another reason listening is so hard, is that we as parents are wired to protect, defend, and support unconditionally. We love our children ferociously. Sometimes, we leap to problem-solving mode too fast. We have a very hard time listening to our child tell us about another child who said something mean to them or a teacher who treated them unfairly. We get so caught up emotionally that our faces and voices don’t allow the child space to simply say what is on their mind.

We need to slow our hearts down, slow our minds down, and stay in an open, almost neutral, place. Yes, our loving attention needs to be clear from our focused listening, but if we really want our children to feel heard, we need to be wiling to wait and then, after acknowledging in a low key way that what we heard sounded hard, say something like, “I am so glad you shared that with me. Is there something you want me to do besides listen? I want you to trust me, but I am also so proud of how you are thinking about this yourself. “ A child should hear from you that you are glad they shared the information, you trust them to figure things out, and you are available to help if they need it.

If there is a point of safety involved, it is important to help the child identify that through some gentle questions like, “What you have told me worries me a bit. Is there a part of this situation that worries you?” Then, if appropriate, lead the child to an understanding of those moments when adults might need to help.

Being a good listener includes being a very measured, calm responder. Be brief and allow space for your child’s words. The open and calm nature of your listening and subsequent responses will help your child learn that talking to you is worth it, and they will talk more.

Asking Empowering Questions

Yet another aspect of listening that can be challenging for parents is trusting children. If a child is explaining how they are going to approach solving a problem and it seems off-base or unlikely to succeed, we might feel the need to use our experience and wisdom to advise them. Children often hear such a response this way: “You are not capable of solving this problem. I know better than you, and you should follow my advice or let me do it for you.” This is not going to engender a desire to confide in you again, nor is it going to help your child gain independence, self-confidence, and the wisdom that comes from making mistakes.

Unless there is a clear safety issue, it is important to let kids try out their ideas. So, you might say something like, “That is an interesting approach. I would love to know how it goes. Let’s talk again.” As a good listener, you might be able to steer them to improving their plan by asking clarifying questions in an open-sounding voice, and they may very much appreciate that kind of help—the kind where your questions empower them.

The Power of Listening Well

Listening well and responding openly and with care so as to leave the space for your child are parenting behaviors that, no matter what the age of your child, can make a huge difference in your child feeling heard, valued, and empowered. And, when they know you respect them in this way, you are doing no less than helping them grow into independent and capable young adults.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is a former head of Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.