For all the hovery perils of over-focusing on our kids, paying attention has its place. And one of the most unsung, surprising benefits is this: “Having a parent who listens creates a child who believes he or she has a voice that matters in this world,” says certified special-ed teacher Rachel Macy Stafford.
A voice that matters! There’s a wellspring for confidence, security, and self esteem! So often kids are told what to do or how to think. In the rush of the day, it’s almost too easy to say hurry up or be quiet or not now or maybe later. Even a super-attentive parent can fail to leave space for a child’s very own voice. But with a few simple ideas, we can also let them know, “Yup, I hear you, babe!”
Here, five great suggestions on how to create this “soul-building” habit from Stafford and her just-published book Hands-Free Life.
Stop moving and stop doing when your child talks to you.
It’s nearly impossible to give kids undivided attention 24/7. But when you can, look right into your child’s eyes and listen to what he or she has to say to you, no matter how trivial the message might seem at the time. This small step is loud body language for “Okay, I’m listening to you.” Emphasis on the you.
Another approach: Try carving special time every day when you drop everything to focus. As a 3-year-old, Stafford’s daughter started asking for “talk time.” Now she’s 12 and they still spend 10 minutes or more before bed, where mom gives her undivided attention for matters trivial and serious alike.
Respect their words.
Even if it takes a painstakingly long time for those words to come out, resist finishing their sentences. Resist the temptation to disagree or clarify or correct. “By giving them the time and space to share what’s on their hearts, you’re strengthening their voice,” Stafford says.
Let them speak for themselves.
To the waiter, the coach, the teacher, the doctor, the sales clerk. Once your child is old enough to clearly tell you something, she’s old enough to tell it to another adult. No need to put words in her mouth or paraphrase. Stafford let her kids practice on her first when they were unsure. They learned that speaking up has power (and that grownups are impressed).
Let them be the expert of something.
After Stafford’s 4-year-old found their car in a parking lot when mom couldn’t, she dubbed her “the parking expert.” At 9, her daughter still self-identifies this way. She’s also the “name expert” for remembering people’s names well. This little tradition lends confidence to kids’ skills and wisdom.
Pause before responding when troubling information is shared.
Anger or scolding will shut your child down. Stafford suggests this instead: “Thank you for trusting me with this. You did the right thing by telling me.” Listen with an open heart now, and you’ll continue to be the go-to listener later.
Kids who feel that their voice will be heard, Stafford says, are more apt to use that voice:
- to say to an unsafe driver, “Let me out of the car”
- to refuse a drink or a smoke
- to speak up about a perceived injustice
- to share their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs—whatever they may be
- to believe that speaking up can make a difference.
And those things, in turn, help them believe in themselves.