Have you noticed how you deal with a child who is too young to speak, or is only learning to speak? With only a few questions from your side, each one followed by a nod or a shake of the head from his side, the little one can communicate a complete message to you just because you really listen and make sure that you understand his request (or demand). You don’t stop until he knows that you understood the message right. That’s active listening; the ability to refrain from mixing your own thoughts, opinions, judgements, preconceptions, prejudices and feelings into those expressed by the person talking to you. You just ensure that you’re hearing the person right and understanding it exactly as he wants you to. And often that implies rephrasing the other person’s statement or feeling to that person’s satisfaction.
The problem is, you stopped doing it soon after the child learned to talk. Unlike the god-gifted ability to hear, the ability to listen is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced until the highest level is achieved. Active listening may be a choice for individuals but in parent-child relationship, this one thing will be the deciding factor in the quality and smoothness of their communication. When your child faces a problem or wants to share something with you, talk less (no, actually, talk the least), listen more. More than half the problems would be solved, even the future ones, if the parent knows how to listen. We think we do it all the time but that’s where we are wrong.
The biggest misconception we have is that the more you pamper the child who hurt himself playing, the more he whines. He’s just doing it to get attention. So, it’s best to ignore or divert him. The result is the exact opposite and the child keeps crying just because the parent strictly refuses to acknowledge his feelings in an attempt to ‘make him brave’. All you have to do is say, ‘Oh, you hurt yourself?’ with a hug and a kiss and he will tell you where and how. Rephrase it, ‘Oh, that’s where it hurts?’ Is it bad? As soon as the child feels understood, he child will be back to normal in no time. He’ll probably suggest putting ice on it or a band-aid or will just go play again depending on how bad or little it hurt. You will be amazed at how quickly and ‘bravely’ the child copes with the least or no crying at all if you do this every time.
You’re in the kitchen, cooking, when your child brings her drawing or writing or something creative she made herself, to show you. Instead of saying “Wow! That’s beautiful” after just a glance, tell her to give you a minute or so until you can actually look at it. Once you do, it’s better to refrain from praising; look at it with genuine interest, let her explain what she made and ask HER how she feels about it. Praise only when it comes spontaneously to you.
Getting ready in the morning, your child informs you he doesn’t want to wear his uniform because he doesn’t like it! Rather than discounting his feeling and saying ‘But it is nice and looks great on you’, allow him to express himself. Rephrase, ‘Oh, you really don’t like this uniform! Is it the shirt or the pants? ‘Both!’ he says, angry at the uniform. ‘Oh you don’t like them both? Okay… I understand my dear’. (At this point, with very young children, a solution may have to be offered. For older children, solution comes from the child himself). Casually suggest something such as ‘May be you could ask your teacher about it? If she can allow other clothes? Because I can’t do it without asking her. Sorry…’ He dresses up anyway because he watched you empathizing. Hug him again and tell him that you totally understand that he doesn’t like his uniform.
Your child clearly states that he will share his toys with his friend but not the friend’s younger brother. Despite the embarrassment, respect his decision about his own toys. Say, ‘I understand you don’t want to share your toy with him but then he will be unhappy and might cry. Do you think you could give him something that you’re not playing with? He may stick with his decision so you leave him at that. You can repeat the request after a while. When he sees that you allowed him the decision regarding his toys and did nothing forcefully, he will come up with a solution, helping you out of your misery.
Do you ever try to imagine what kind of communication would you and your children have when they grow up, become independent, married and have their own families? What kind of bond do you wish to share with them? Do you want to tie them with the string of obligation (one MUST love their parents) or sincere feelings? Do you see them talking to you, listening and giving you time just as a duty or out of genuine interest and concern? Has it ever occurred to you that the seeds of that communication, that bond, are sown today? Whether you think about it or not.
If you want to avoid the ‘impossible to talk to and understand’ teenage years of your children and have lifelong strong bonds with them, start practicing Active listening. It is so uncommon that it feels weird when you initially start doing it but go ahead anyway. For that, you will have to give up a few things that you do as parents: Stop providing solution to every problem the child faces; give up false praising; stop trying to change or ‘correct’ his feelings or turn his dislikes into likes; don’t lecture about the ‘should and should not’; start allowing them to be bored or be unhappy for a short while. They just have to know you’re there and you understand. That’s what makes all the difference!