“Shut up and listen!” These words are like lyrics to one of the anthems of childhood. Truth be told, we’d probably hear them a lot still, if it weren’t for the fact that adults are afforded more respect simply because they’re adults. Here’s another truth:
When it comes to our relationships with children, teachers and parents talk too much and don’t listen nearly enough.
The reason for this is not a lack of care nor interest. It’s usually simply a matter of time; or rather, the lack thereof. It’s also a case of us thinking that we know what’s going on in our children and students’ minds and pre-empting what they’re trying to say. Parents will testify that most of the time they’re spot on. They DO know what their child is about to say. Teachers too. We’re almost right when we say, “We’ve heard it all before.” Almost … but not always. Even if we are able to predict, fairly accurately, what a child is going to say, what right do we have to take away their opportunity to express themselves? We may have heard it all before, but they’re still busy figuring “it all” out.
Before we find ourselves defaulting into the “ifs” and “buts” and genuine-feeling excuses for our thoughtless behaviour, here are five reasons why we need to SHUT UP and LISTEN:
1. Everyone wants to be Seen, Heard, Accepted and Validated
This ought to be a no-brainer. However, we’re all so busy trying to be seen and heard ourselves, that we often forget to stop … pause … and listen to another person – especially if it’s a small person, or one of a whole group of small people all craving attention. Our over-scheduled, super-connected, instant-response lifestyles have turned us into horrible communicators. Our children are suffering as a result. We rush from pillar to post, with our attention split between numerous online conversations and multitask our way through our exhausting days. Then we wonder why youngsters attach more value to screen time than family time. At least the Fortnite avatars are reliably available and responsive. They may be computer-generated, but they can always be counted on (wi-fi permitting) to show up and be present. Can you?
2. It’s THEIR journey, not ours
The ability to finish another person’s sentence is comforting, perhaps, but not useful. Friends and partners enjoy the phenomenon and brag about it. People beyond those circles of trust and agreement generally hate it. It’s certainly not something we should be doing with children and teenagers … ever! The temptation to to help someone who is struggling to articulate something that we already understand is huge. The temptation to hurry things along by helping out is great. Putting words in someone’s mouth is hardly ever done with malice, but is also hardly ever helpful. Children, struggling to find the right words, will often just give up and take the easier route of agreeing with the adult’s completion of their sentence, rather than risk being “wrong” or simply not managing to retrieve the correct word. The scary thing is that this is more likely when the child is under stress; often without us knowing it. Surely these are precisely the moments when parents and teachers NEED to hear exactly what the child has to say?
We all have days when we struggle a bit with word retrieval, but sometimes individuals have language disorders that make it even more difficult. Here’s a link to an article with very useful information (and activities) if you have a child who suffers from such difficulties: Information for Families: Helping Children Who have Word Retrieval Difficulties
Keep channels open so that they know they will be heard if they are in trouble. Heaven forbid it should happen to your child, but horrible things can – and do – happen to children every day. One way to ensure they will come to you – immediately – with big stuff, is by making sure you make time to listen to the small stuff. Sometimes things happen to children that they don’t even have the vocabulary to describe, nor the prior knowledge that those things even occur. They’re more likely to be able to communicate these things to us when they know they will be given ample time and space to work through putting their experience into words.
4. How will you spot when they stop talking?
Sometimes, when children (especially teenagers) are struggling in life, they simply stop communicating. If your relationship has a “I’m the adult – keep quiet and listen to me,” or “Hurry up, I’m busy,” or “Not now, I’m on my phone,” dynamic, how on earth will you know when your child/teenager has gone quiet? People communicate as much with what they’re not saying as what they are. Pay attention. Notice the silences. Find out what they’re about. Of course, sometimes the silences will simply be about a teenager having a hormonal reaction that renders all adults totally uncool and beneath contempt … but not always …
5. It’s just sommer rude, man.
Appropriate conversational turn-taking is an important part of being a socially competent adult. Giving people time to finish what they need to say, no matter the hurry one is in, is simply polite. How will your children/students learn this life skill if you don’t model it for them?
Of course I understand that it’s often not possible to stop everything and listen to everything every child has to say, whenever they wish to say it. It’s important to teach children appropriate conversational skills, turn-taking and impulse control. There are strategies to do this effectively, which I will deal with in a future blog. It’s a good idea, though, to have a word or phrase that children can use to let you know that what they have to say cannot wait. Perhaps even two words/phrases: one for physical emergencies (like when your sibling has fallen off the roof) and one for emotional emergencies (like when you heart is very sore and you need to tell someone).
If it’s not a physical emergency and you’re not able to make the time to listen at that moment, make sure you set aside time later to do so – and FOLLOW UP!
In my experience children and teenagers are pretty cool and have really interesting things to say. They’re worth listening to. Do it!