“If you want your kids to tell you the big stuff when they’re big, listen to the little stuff when they’re little.”
This piece of advice might just be the most valuable parenting wisdom I’ve ever received. I took it to heart when my kids were young, and now that they are older, I see how important it truly is.
We parents often lament that kids don’t listen well, but how often do we fail to really listen to our kids? I’m guilty of tuning out, too, so I’m not pointing fingers here. But I’ve become cognizant over the years of the importance of setting an example for my kids when it comes to listening.
One of our most important jobs as parents is to teach our kids to communicate. But communication isn’t just about expressing ourselves; it’s also about listening to what others have to say, asking clarifying questions, and giving thoughtful consideration to what’s been said.
If we aren’t doing those things with our kids on a regular basis, we are neglecting an important aspect of communication. And eventually, that neglect will come back to haunt many parents. There are a lot of things I feel like I’ve missed the mark on as a mother, but this is one area where I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job.
Our teen and tween daughters come to me to talk through things all the time. Sometimes it feels like literally all the time. But our late-night heartfelt talks have become some of my most treasured parenting moments, despite my exhausted brain and instinctual desire to have them stop talking so I can go to sleep.
I credit at least some of their openness to the fact that I’ve tried to give them my full attention when they wanted to talk from the time they were little, whether it was about an idea they had or a feeling they were struggling with or a hundred questions they felt the need to rattle off like machine-gun fire.
Listening isn’t easy. Listening to a kid tell a story or describe something to you that you have zero interest in really isn’t easy. Doing it over and over again, kid after kid, year after year, can feel downright mind-numbing. But I’ve tried my darnedest to do it anyway. I’ve wanted to give my kids an example of active listening, even when I’ve had to slightly feign interest to maintain engagement.
And now that I’ve reached the stage where I really do want them to tell me the interesting stuff and where I want to be in fully engaged communication with them, those efforts are paying off. They know that I will listen and hear them. They feel safe talking about personal or uncomfortable things with me and trust that I will handle those conversations calmly and thoughtfully.
They know that my love for them is unconditional, that they can always use me as a sounding board, and that I will answer whatever questions they have honestly.
And they’ve learned through example to listen as part of that communication as well. Not perfectly all the time, of course — nobody can do that. But I see those skills blossoming in our oldest kids now, which does my mama heart good. (It also gives me hope for their younger sibling who is still in the early stages of practicing this kind of open communication.)
If we want our kids to communicate with us, we have to remember that communication is a two-way street. If we don’t allow kids to express themselves at whatever stage they’re in and if we don’t listen to what they have to say even when it is tedious or annoying to us in the moment, they will assume the lines of communication between us are down, and they’ll look elsewhere to find a listening ear. Or they’ll assume we just aren’t interested in what they have to say.
“If you want your kids to tell you about the big things when they’re big, listen when your kids tell you about the little things when they’re little.”
To children, it’s all big things anyway. If we listen like we understand that, they’ll be much more likely to continue sharing the stuff we think is important.