“Good listening” in parent and educator circles encompasses far more than the actual skill of listening. Children who are good listeners are compliant, jumping to the requests of adults without a second thought.
The actual skill of listening is one that I want to nurture: growing a child’s capacity for focus and engagement, engendering friendly respect and turn-taking, empowering children with pro-social skills to learn in a classroom setting. But, the imperative to be a “good listener” includes baggage that I do not want to impart on my young ones.
Consider these imagined conversations between adults and children:
Instances Typically Called “Good Listening”:
Pick up the trucks. No problem.
Put on your pants. I was just about to do so, thank you.
Hold hands across the street. I couldn’t imagine anything better!
Sit still at the table. Marvelous suggestion, Emily. Thank you for the reminder.
Instances Typically Called “Bad Listening”:
Pick up the trucks. (no response) Are you listening to me??
Put on your pants. I don’t want to! Why aren’t you listening to me?
Hold hands across the street. No! Listen – if you don’t hold my hand, you will get hit by a truck!
Sit still at the table. (squirm, squirm) You are having a hard time listening tonight. Dinner is done!
My problem with demanding children to be good listeners is that I really don’t want children who are blindly obedient, which is often what we mean when we say, “Be a good listener.” I am committed to raising children who know right from wrong, children who balance their own needs with the needs of others, and children who can stand up for themselves in the face of peer pressure.
And children who will be adults who can do these things are not “good listeners.”
I will raise children who think critically about what the world is asking them to do. My girls will be women who stand strongly against pressures to derive their full value from an image-obsessed culture. My boys will be men who live an emotionally integrated life. My children will defy injustice lobbied against individuals on the basis of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, religion, age, gender, or status in life.
I will raise children who question the demands of “authority figures” who press them to make poor choices. My children will be clear about who can assume control over their decision making. My children will question anyone who forces them into uncomfortable situations. And, my children know that the demand, “Don’t tell your mom or dad,” is never something to go along with.
I will raise children who can advocate for their needs. No matter what. No matter when.
I will raise children who are clear about what a friend is and what a friend is not. My children will grow into teenagers who know how to respect their peers. My children will grow into teenagers who feel confident seeking different friendships or finding advocates when pressure encroaches on a relationship.
Here is what I know. My children will be defiant. My children will be disobedient. And while I don’t like being on the receiving end of those exchanges, this is not a disposition I want to smother in them. My job is to set consistent limits, and respond empathetically and consistently in the face of a child’s definance while preserving the internal voice for right and wrong. To read my child’s swift obediance – their “good listening – as a sign of my success is to miss the point altogether!
Let’s change the conversation. Instead of asking for “good listeners”, let’s give children the tools to act pro-socially. Instead of barking commands at children, let’s model the behavior we want to see. Instead of demanding prompt compliance, let’s encourage our children to ask why or offer a different plan to achieve the same goal.
Tools to Act Pro-Socially
Children do well when they can. Providing children with lots of visual cues about routines can support their success. It’s cold where we live right now, so preparing to go outside is a multi-step process. This morning, we made a chart to place near the door so that children can know what comes next. The ability to translate verbal instructions into action depends on a complex system of skills that children are still developing.
Model the Behavior
We ask children to listen, but we often don’t make time to listen to them. By making space in our days to sit on the floor and meet our kids eye-to-eye, they will internalize the value of their contributions, and will be ready to return the respect when the time arises.
Encouraging Why and Asking for Different Plans
When children are free to ask for reasons behind the requests, they become an active part in the decision making process, evaluating a request for reasonableness. Encouraging children to offer a different plan nurtures their problem solving ability and encourages them to think about the needs of a whole community as a means for achieving an end.
Fostering the skills in our children that we want to see in adults means a willingness to sit with nuances and shades of gray. It means seeking solutions rather than rattling off demands.
For more reading on obedience, check out:
“Do You Want to Raise an Obedient Child?” by Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting
Mind the No!
How to Raise Decent Children Without Spankings or Time-Outs