I was a resident assistant at college when I had the good fortune to be trained for the first time in the skill of listening. I remember being amazed when a student would come in and start talking about homework or another minor topic and then as I listened and allowed them to speak a much more important issue would eventually come up. Of course this didn't happen every time and sometimes it really was just the homework but on those occasions when the homework was just the tip of the iceberg listening really helped to uncover what was really going on.
Little did I know back in college that becoming a skilled listener would be something I would continue to learn and actually make a career out of as a Life Coach and most importantly put to even better use in my role as a parent. I know from my work as a Parenting Communication Coach that the skill of listening is one that we can all use help with. I also know that the first few weeks of school can be a particularly emotional time as children and parents navigate new academic and social situations. Honing our listening skills can really make a difference and at the same time it can lay the foundation for stronger relationships while also creating excellent communication skills within our children who are always learning from our example.
Think for a moment about what your initial reaction would be to the following comment from your middle schooler "My new math teacher is so annoying, why do we need to always show our work and when am I ever going to need to use this stupid x, y, algebra stuff anyway." You will not be alone if your automatic reaction is something along the following lines "Of course the teacher needs to know that you really know how to work it out and without the basics of algebra you'll get left behind."
Now try the same with the following comment from a five year old who just started kindergarten "I don't have any friends at school." Our automatic responses are likely to be something along the lines of "Of course you have friends at school, there's Joe from pre-school and Sydney from next door."
Our responses to many of our children's comments are so ingrained and automatic and often we find ourselves echoing the words of our own parents. We sometimes feel comforted by this because this feels and sounds like what we think being a parent is supposed to be. But didn't it drive us crazy when we heard those responses as kids ourselves? In both instances we are doing our best and trying to reassure our children. We are listening but we could be doing even better and listening even more.
The next time your child comes home from school and shares an experience with you similar to those above try what Dr. Thomas Gordon calls "Active Listening". For example, the response to the middle schooler would be something along the lines of "Wow, you seem really frustrated by this math teacher." Your child will then share even more of the story with you and you will begin to get to the bottom of what is really going on, it seriously could be something completely different from a problem with the math teacher. For the five year old in kindergarten your response might be "You were feeling lonely today."
Remember, the presenting problem is usually only the tip of the iceberg but if we jump in and assume we know how to best help them solve this problem we risk missing the point entirely. The children miss out on the opportunity to work through what they are experiencing and they also begin to learn how we respond. As a result they will base future decisions about what to share and not share with us on based on these patterns.
Listening is a life skill and one that we can all improve and there are two great books out there that I always recommend Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Dr. Thomas Gordon and How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.