Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while building essential listening skills in your children.
Your child’s success depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are telling them. Listening skills can support your child’s ability to engage in healthy relationships with friends, relatives, and teachers and aid their focus and ability to learn at school. For example, we know, children must listen to their teacher if they are to follow directions and successfully navigate expectations at school. Not surprisingly, better listening skills are associated with school success.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about themselves, their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. This is also known as their self-awareness. They come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, we all face challenges when it comes to listening. The average person listens with only 25% efficiency.1 With screens occupying several hours of our child’s day, their opportunity to interact with others in person and exercise listening skills may be less than with previous generations. And, listening skills require the use of a number of other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
The key to many parenting challenges, like building essential listening skills, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you.
Whether it’s your five-year-old continuing to play when you’ve told them you need to leave (for the third time), your second grader not listening to your safety instructions and taking off in a crowd with a friend while you panic losing sight of them, or your nine-year-old daydreaming during their teacher’s instructions and not knowing how to do their homework, establishing regular ways to practice listening skills can prepare your child for family, school, and life success.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen can create:
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, working on effective listening skills with your child:
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child cultivate effective listening skills, a critical life skill. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about listening skills by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when they struggle with focus and listening so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child:
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you to deepen your ability to communicate with one another;
- will grow their self-control (adding to their ability to focus attention) as well as empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child in their ability to listen effectively. Your active listening in this moment will begin modeling the very kinds of skills you are attempting to build. You might just start by asking:
- “Do you feel listened to? When and by whom?”
- “How do you know that the person is truly listening to you?”
- “Are there times when someone is not listening to you?”
- “How does that make you feel?”
During a family meal, explore the question: “What does it take to listen well?” Allow each family member to respond. Model listening by allowing each person to complete their thoughts without interruption or judgment.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that children are learning how to be in healthy relationships which includes learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent to better understand what their child is going through. Here are some examples:
- Five-and-Six-year-olds can have limited attention spans and thrive on encouragement. They might not listen well and act too busy with their playing, particularly when they don’t like what you are saying.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may not be able to listen in the midst of transitions or routine changes because they require that stability.
- Eight-year-olds are more skilled at cooperation which means they’ll be listening more to friends and adults. Dialogue with children at this age reaches a new level of sophistication.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowd and where they fit in friendship groups, which can impact their ability to listen with empathy.
- Ten-year-olds are interested in figuring out the thoughts and feelings of others. There is much more of a give-and-take in friendships with listening, talking, and compromising.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Model listening while interacting with your child. Modeling listening skills can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Set a goal for yourself. Pick a time of day when you know that you and your child will be talking. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself: “What is my body communicating and how am I demonstrating I’m listening?”
- Listen for thought and feeling. In addition to listening to the content of what your child says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content, in other words, the context.
- Children need their parents’ attention to thrive. So why not build a sacred time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn your phone off. Set a timer if you need to. Give it a special name you and your child create like “Mom and Susie’s Secret Time.”
- Learn listening strategies together by trying them out.
- Demonstrate poor listening and good listening. It helps to show what poor listening and good listening looks like. Start by having one person act out what poor listening skills look like. Exaggerate and make it funny! Then, reflect and ask questions like: “What did you notice about her body language?” Next, have another person model good listening skills. Then, reflect and ask questions like: “What did she do? How did her body change?”
- Active listening. Try out active listening in which one person listens to fully understand what the speaker is saying and waits until the speaker is finished talking before responding. A response could be a simple “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
- Paraphrasing. Try out paraphrasing by echoing back to the speaker a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. You might start, “I heard you say that…”
- Seeking clarification. Try out seeking clarification. Particularly if you are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, seeking clarification on details is important to make certain you understand. Practice seeking clarification by asking questions like, “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning? What happened?”
- Practice questioning and commenting with empathy. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own experiences, focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. For example, your child might say, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new project. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait.” Instead of responding with something like: “I built a birdhouse when I was in school,” which takes the focus away from your child, you might say, “Sounds like you are excited about this project. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening requires practice. Your modeling will make a difference in your child’s comfort with this style of communication.1
Use the “Me Too!” rule so that each person can complete a thought without interruption.1 Agree with family members that when someone is saying something that is true for them as well, they make the “Me too!” sign – shake your thumb pointing back at yourself and pinkie pointing out at the other person.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Listening Skills for Healthy Relationships
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard to practice essential listening skills.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate listening. You could say, “Show me how you can listen at dinner without interrupting.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you listened fully to your sister when she was upset. That’s so helpful to her.”
- There are a number of games that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by playing these games as a family. Some suggested games are:
- Charades (non-competitive). Expand categories and think of animals, insects, or vacation destinations to act out for one another with no teams and the simple enjoyment of nonverbal acting and guessing. This game strengthens how we attend to body language, an essential part of listening.
- Who Done It? Mystery lovers will enjoy this game. It teaches skills in careful listening and communicating information in an accurate and concise way. It also stirs a child’s creative thinking. Pretend that your precious pet turtle was stolen by someone. Describe what that person looked like taking cues from a variety of people around you – “He wore a plaid flannel shirt and had a large forehead. He was carrying the turtle in one hand and a flashlight in the other.” You must include 10 details about the appearance of the turtle napper. Try repeating those 10 details twice for your listener. The listener must be able to repeat all 10 descriptors in order to solve the mystery.
- Cell-aphone. Remember the old game “Telephone”? It’s as effective at teaching listening and communication skills as it always has been. Place children in a circle. The first child whispers a short sentence in the next child’s ear. Each child passes on what he heard. The last child reveals the message. Giggles ensue when the message invariably changes from start to finish.
- Cooperative (Ghost) Story Telling. Gather in a circle. The leader establishes the rules to get the game started. Let the group know that each person will have a turn to contribute one sentence to the ghost story. Pass around a talking stick and let participants know that only the one who possesses the stick may talk. The others must listen carefully in order to build upon the story. The leader can begin with the classic line, “It was a dark, stormy night and…” This requires no setup and no materials. Children will delight in the creativity and imagination involved. This is also a wonderful transition game that can be used on the spur of the moment when waiting for a next activity. For younger children, simply passing the story along adding one sentence at a time is enough to excite and involve a small group.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to meet their listening challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful and helping them grow in their listening skills.
- Ask key questions to actively see how your child’s listening is going. You can ask questions like:
- “Tell me about your lesson in math class today – what were some of your teacher’s instructions for your homework?”
- “Seems like you were having a difficult time not interrupting when your friend was talking to you. What were some of the struggles you encountered? What would have helped you to actively listen in that situation?”
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age will present differing social challenges. So, becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Play listening games to reinforce skills. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for listening. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
When children do not listen, give them another chance. We all lose our focus sometimes. Seek clarification on what they heard and did not hear, and then review what you said again to help them refocus their attention.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished in family life. But if your child is working hard to practice their listening skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your child’s motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is listening to their sister’s long-winded story, for example, a short, specific call-out is all that’s needed: “I notice you listened with focus to your sister’s story. I know that makes her feel cared about. That’s so important.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no interruptions – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child makes up for ignoring you by apologizing, sincerely recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You listened to your brother’s upset feelings and I know it meant a lot to him!” – can promote more of the same.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.