Kids can have a lot to say, and a lot to ask, and their timing isn’t always ideal. It may almost seem as if they wait for the times when we are least available for a long story or a “why” question to launch into a conversation. And when we do stop what we’re doing to listen, what they say may seem silly and immature, repetitive, impulsive, and emotional. Kids can exaggerate, fabricate, and make mountains out of molehills. But that’s using our ears and our brain.
Our kids think they are wise and insightful, mature and brilliant. Kids ask questions, and for advice, because they want answers and because they want our attention. Especially when they sense we’re busy and distracted from them. If it was up to our kids, they would have us listen to them, speak to them, and teach them all day. Kids are usually “in the moment” and believe their issues and concerns, right this minute, are the most important things in the world. Front page news. Here are three things to keep in mind from day one.
Even infants know when you’re paying attention. Child development specialists teach us that infants as young as a month or two of age communicate with us—by crying, of course, to express discomfort or hunger, but also by smiling, hand-waving and kicking, babbling, and cooing. We know this instinctively, and attach meaning to so many of babies’ actions. However, research has shown that even the youngest babies can also sense our listening responses, and they watch our eyes and our facial expressions. As the parent of an infant, it is so easy to be distracted by the dishes in the sink, the laundry on the floor, the paperwork on your desk. But even at that tiny stage of a child’s life, infants look for acknowledgement from us. Talking back to your baby when she coos or kicks and smiles shows her you’re “hearing” her. Babies love mimicking you—make exaggerated “la-la” sounds and watch her move her lips and tongue in response. Open your mouth wide in feigned surprise and watch her smile!
Promise to listen to the whole story later. When my own kids were young, they always seemed to need our attention most as soon as we pulled into the school parking lot in the morning. As other kids were bounding out of cars all around us, inevitably there was something really, really important that one or more of our kids needed to discuss. They had forgotten to tell us about the test today or the mean thing their best friend said on the playground yesterday. They had forgotten it was “silly hat day.” Or that it wasn’t “paint your face day.” Oops. With the school bell about to ring, or when we are late for work, or when we are exhausted after a long day, it is hard to listen. But that’s when we have to try the hardest to lock into our kids’ soliloquies. They may be impossible to deal with right now—after all, the BELL IS RINGING, or YOU ARE LATE FOR WORK! But give your kids your solemn pledge that you will listen, and you will have time, tonight. Promise that you will listen to the whole story, beginning to end, as soon as you can.
Refresh your kids’ memory. When you do sit down with your child that night, he may have forgotten entirely about the crisis that morning—but you should remind him! Ask him how it turned out, how he handled it, is it still a problem? By showing your kids that you remember how upset they were and that you keep your promises to listen to them, the next time there’s an inconveniently timed crisis, they will give you a pass until later. And just as when they were infants in their cribs, let your kids know by your facial expressions, your patience, and your thoughtful response that you feel their pain and share their concerns.
Listening to your kids when they’re troubled, no matter the nature of the distress proves to them you’re always there, their problems are your problems, and you will solve them together. Then, as your kids get older, they will include you in their lives and in their bigger crises.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is a Parents advisor and the author of books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting, 940 Saturdays, and Miracles We Have Seen - America's Leading Physicians Share Stories They Can't Forget. Visit his website and blog at harleyrotbart.com and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.