Of Course I’m Listening!
…..What Did You Say?

By Annie Fox, M.Ed.
Annie FoxGood ol’ Mr. Rogers knew what he was singing about when he was putting on his sneakers: “I mean I might just make mistakes if I should have to hurry up and so I like to take my time.” When he was home, I’m sure his kids got at least the same level of attention as he gave his shoelaces. To his credit, that guy could really focus on one thing at a time.

Recently I’m becoming more aware of how cranky, stressed and distracted I get when I try to do a whole lot of stuff at once. So I’m trying to slow down and zero in. But it ain’t easy. Admittedly, as I’m writing this I’m also picking remnants of chewed almonds from in between my teeth, answering email, tweeting, and squinting at this sentence as I wonder how long it will take for the eyeglasses I left in our hotel room in Elko, NV to make their way back here. (Soon please!)

Tweens and teens constantly say their parents “don’t listen.” Parents tell me the same thing about teens. We’d all like to improve parent-teen communication but we can’t do our part when we’re busy with six other things or even one other thing. (Same goes for improving communication between your and your honey-pie.)

Obviously you can’t always drop everything to listen to your child. But let’s be honest: not many of us do open-heart surgery or negotiate international crises at home. So when our kids want to talk, need to talk, we could take a break and focus on them if we choose to. But most of the time we keep doing whatever we’re doing and shift into the “Uh, huh. Uh, huh…” mode where we only pretend to listen.

Here’s why auto-pilot listening is a bad idea.

  • It’s disrespectful. In a healthy relationship trust and respect have to flow in both directions. Want your kids to respect you? Then you’ve got to respect them. Auto-listening is rude.
  • It’s not fooling them. Even toddlers have been known to turn Mom’s or Dad’s head to get their attention. If an 18 month old knows that no eye contact means you’re preoccupied, how can you hope to fake it with a teen? And why would you want to?
  • You’re showing them that “other things” are more important to you than they are. You don’t really feel that way so why send that message? Your teens probably don’t get 100% attention from their teachers or their friends. Let them at least get it from you while you’re having a conversation.
  • Auto-listening is poor modeling. Our kids don’t listen to us for a couple of reasons: a) they’re teens and they need to at least pretend to shut us out so they can build their own identity and  b) we haven’t spent enough time showing them what active listening looks and feels like. You can’t do much about their developmental need to shut you out, but making a real effort to listen (with eye contact, 100% of your attention, and an open heart and mind) teaches them to listen more attentively to you and others.

WARNING! Don’t assume an increase in real listening will eradicate all disharmonies between you and your teen. (We’re working on communication here, not miracles.) But if you focus more on listening you can reasonably predict there’ll be less confusion about what was actually said in a conversation. That means less arguments studded with gems like: “I never said that!” “You never said that!” and “What are you talking about?!”

That’d be cool, right? Hello? Anyone there?
Too Stressed to Think? by Annie FoxCopyright © 2009 Annie Fox
Annie Fox, M.Ed. is an award winning author, educator, and online adviser for parents and teens since 1997. Read excerpts from her books: The Teen Survival Guide To Dating & Relating: Real-World Advice on Guys, Girls, Growing Up, and Getting Along , Too Stressed To Think? and the new Middle School Confidential™ series
Listen to her podcast series “Family Confidential: Secrets of Successful Parenting” at www.anniefox.com.