Listening is the Training for Listening

Recently a colleague spoke quite passionately about the difficult discussions she’s been having with her 11 year-old daughter regarding make up. The daughter wants to wear make up and the mom doesn’t want her to. Mom said, “I just want her to listen to me!” I replied, “You want her to listen? It sounds to me like you want her to obey.” My colleague didn’t look happy with what I said and continued to further explain her position on girls and make up. But I wasn’t trying to make this mom wrong or take her daughter’s side; rest assured my own position was neutral. My intention was to point out the utility of saying what you mean.

LISTEN: to hear. Also, to focus attention on the speaker to reach for deeper understanding and connection with that person.

OBEDIENCE: the act of following instructions or recognizing someone’s authority.

Don’t say listen when you mean obey. You offer only confusion and give listening a bad name.

Occasionally, I would actually say rarely, obedience is justified. But really only in circumstances of potential or real danger. Hopefully you don’t need to request obedience in the first place. If you do, your parenting is probably already off track (and maybe has been for a while).

It looked to me like the make up discussion was an opportunity for negotiation; that is, each of them could share with the other about what was important to them and why regarding the issue of make up. Negotiation (and mediation) demands that each person gets an opportunity to explain their wants and needs while the other person listens. Negotiation is about building understanding, so each party can see where the other is coming from in order to reach an understanding that is mutually satisfactory. In this post I will focus on listening because it is the essential foundation for all conflict resolution.

Learning to Listen

Young people learn to listen the same way they learn everything else: by observing it happening around them and then practicing. To reiterate the definition above, listening is the act of paying close attention to someone else’s speech. I often use the concepts of listening and paying attention interchangeably. When children see us frequently listening to others with compassion and cooperation they will pick this skill up. Kids will integrate the skill of listening the fastest if they directly experience an abundance of our own relaxed and warm listening attention. When children are small the way to do this is through Playlistening.

So children can best learn to listen by being listened to well. It’s a complete 180 from the traditional view of kids listening to and respecting their elders to earn listening and respect in return. This old-school way sends a message that somehow younger humans are not as deserving as adults; that having years of experience being alive entitles you to act bossy to those who haven’t been around as long.

But having the ability to listen and choosing to use that skill are two different things. It’s been said in parenting circles there are two things you can’t make your child do: eat or sleep. I would like to add ‘pay attention’ to that list. Paying attention (listening) is a one-hundred-percent sovereign activity. How do you make someone pay attention? Make someone be interested? You can’t. But you can scare them into acting as if they are interested. And that happens all the time.

Rather, you can be interesting. That is truly how to attract attention. Make yourself interesting and worth listening to. To children that means:

  • be relaxed
  • be friendly
  • be yourself
  • like yourself
  • like being alive

Negotiation vs. Demanding Compliance

We don’t get to have the attention or compliance of our children simply because they’re our offspring; we are not entitled to obedience because of our advanced age. Instead, by intensively feeding our relationships with our young ones from the very beginning with large amounts of attention, affection, play, and communication, our children will desire ongoing close connection with us. It’s that close connection that allows kids to choose to cooperate. Who wants to cooperate with a tyrant? Even one that puts food on the table and drives to swim practice.

Front loading our relationships with our kids with lots of attention when they are young is a lot of work but it can mitigate problems that stem from disconnection when they are teens. For example, these two books offer data on the decrease of teen sexual activity, disordered eating, and substance misuse with increased parent-teen attachment. It’s a little bit like labor-intensive farming; the more you put in at the start, the more you will come out with in the end. You begin with the end in mind.

Negotiation is a cooperative approach that emphasises the intelligence, desires, and values of each party. Sitting down to negotiate with your child about such things as sleepovers, curfews, and homework let’s you practice and model relationship building and problem solving skills in ways that are fully engaging to your kid and respectful of them as a human. Conversely, if you demand obedience you may get it, especially when kids are young, but it won’t be lasting and it will cost you the relationship you actually want with your child in the future.

True Listening Must Be Freely Given

Here’s another way to look at it: young people with their wide-open minds and full curiosity and wonder about the world are like a forested mountain side, pure and green. When adults try to harness the attention of the young person by forcing them to ‘listen’ and ‘learn’ and ‘pay attention’ and ‘obey’ it’s like clear-cutting. The attention that child possesses is really worth much more in it’s wild state then after it’s cut down and used for fibre.

When children don’t do as they are asked/told they are sometimes called belligerent, bad, misbehaving, ADD, difficult, stubborn, etc. This can lead to a vicious conflict cycle between adult (parent, teacher) and the kid. Once this cycle has begun it may be difficult to stop and it usually accelerates. The more the adult demands to have the child’s attention, the less likely it is to be freely given.