More Great Tips from The Family Institute at Northwestern University
Questioner-in-Chief - January 2016
”How was school today?” “Fine.” “Did you do anything interesting?” “No.” “How did that test go that you were studying for last night?” “Okay.”
Sound familiar? You’re interested in your child’s experience, but you’re shut out. All you get are one-word responses and then there’s silence, or the conversation moves on to other things.
It’s a culture of engagement many parents try to foster, hoping to hear about a youngster’s school day or their time spent with friends or just their latest daydreams. It’s contact we seek, a sense of connection — and we rely on questions as a way of drawing them out. But for them, we’ve morphed at those moments into an annoying Questioner-in-Chief, putting them on some witness stand where they feel vulnerable and over-exposed. That’s when they shut down or turn away.
We forget that the behaviors intrinsic to a culture of connection can be modeled by us. We can take the initiative and share with our children — no matter what their age — tales from our own life. Tales of conflict are particularly likely to engage them — our own disagreements with friends or family or co-workers. Conflict gets attention. It’s what the Greek dramatists knew 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today. Our children live their lives regularly experiencing conflict, whether with siblings or friends or often with us. And your stories will carry a particular punch when you include your emotions: I felt upset, I felt angry, I felt frightened. Emotions are universal; the kids will relate. You might even embellish your narrative a bit if you think it will make your story that much more engaging. Tailor your stories to their level of understanding and edit out what you think might be for grown-up ears only, including the names of people they may know.
By sharing interesting moments from our day, we set a tone that makes it easier for our kids to do the same. If we’re willing to be vulnerable by emotionally self-disclosing with them, they’re more likely to reciprocate with us. But when they do open up, we must listen neutrally and accept what we hear without judgment or criticism. That’s not always easy, especially when they reveal their uncomfortable emotions. Our knee-jerk inclination to protect and solve and admonish and correct will remind them that we’re not easy to talk to — why even bother? Then we’re back to square one, floundering ineffectively as Questioner-in-Chief. (See The 5:1 Ratio, October 2011, below).
The 5:1 Ratio - October 2011
Many of us have it backwards. With our kids, we emphasize talking rather than listening. We believe that good parenting means explaining, reminding, correcting, admonishing, instructing — it's no wonder a lot more words come out of our mouths than theirs. In time, all our gab tends to turn them off. By adolescence, many tune us out.
Better to listen than to speak. When we listen more than we talk to (or at) our children, they come to believe that we're truly interested in their lives. They grow willing to seek us out and share what's on their minds. It's a way that trust develops.
In an August, 2011 presentation before the American Psychological Association, California State University professor Larry Rosen, Ph.D. said, "Communication is the crux of parenting. The ratio of parent listen to parent talk should be at least five-to-one. Talk one minute and listen for five."
Experts may not agree on the numbers, but there's consensus that skillful listening is invaluable.
Show undivided attention. Don't answer the phone or check email, and maintain eye contact when your son or daughter talks to you.
Encourage talking. Many kids need help to begin. "Tell me what was good/bad about your day."And if they've offered you a morsel, try, "That's interesting. Tell me more about it."
Listen patiently. It can take kids longer to put their words together than we'd like. Hang in.
Refrain from commenting. Don't cut them off before they've finished a sentence, or correct their thinking because it doesn't match your own. Show curiosity, no matter what you hear. There's always time later to question or challenge an idea.
Listen for feelings and deliver empathy. The way a child says something — tone of voice, body posture, facial expressions — can tell you plenty. When you detect feelings, ask about them. "I sense you're upset. Can you tell me about it?" "You seem frustrated with your teacher, is that it?"
If your children know you to be a good listener, they'll approach you more often to share a problem when something's troubling them, or just to enjoy the pleasure of your company. Imagine that!