- Chapter 3 -
ACTIVE LISTENING WITH CHILDREN
AND YOUNG PEOPLE
ctive listening is particularly important in parental relationships with children. It comes as a surprise to many parents that they should have to listen to their children. They were brought up to believe that if you accept children as they are, they will remain that way, uncivilized and undeveloped, and that the best way to help them become something better in the future is to state what you don't accept about them now. So, the treatment of most parents is heavy with evaluation, judgment, criticism, preaching, moralizing, admonishing, and commanding. But these are all actions and attitudes which cut off two-way communication between parents and children. Parents wonder why their children will not talk to them, and they do not realize that the youngsters don't want to be preached to, disapproved of, and put down.
Active listening is just as effective and important with teenagers and younger children as it is with adults, if not more so. This does not imply permissiveness, but does require love, a real desire to hear what the child has to say, a determination to be helpful, and a genuine ability to accept his or her feelings. If these are present, and a parent can listen with appropriate verbal and nonverbal responses, proper feedback, and acceptance, while at the same time being non-judgmental, the results can be the same as in adult relationships. The child can be freed of troublesome feelings, and is less afraid of negative feelings in the future. A warmer, stronger relationship develops between parent and child. Active listening also facilitates problem-solving by the child. And, much to the amazement of the parents, the child is more willing to listen to parental thoughts and ideas. Shouldn't every parent want a child who is more self-directing, responsible, and independent?
I had the opportunity for active listening when I followed the practice of taking one of our five children out to dinner each week on a rotating basis. It provided a very different kind of relationship than when I was the referee at the dining room table trying to stop the kicking under the table and all those peculiar activities that siblings seem to find necessary. In an effort to calm the situation, my conversation ran along such lines as, "Teasing does not justify hitting." The child guest for the evening was excited about our "special time," with the commitment that the occasion was not just a dodge to lay on a heavy parental lecture. It gave me the opportunity to be very chivalrous with my four daughters, opening doors and pulling out chairs, and they enjoyed the attention.
The child could pick the restaurant. This led to a lot of hamburgers and inexpensive meals. The nutritional requirements were lax, and I will not recount how many different colored soft drinks Bettina lined up at a place called "The Hut."
We did splurge once when I took Beverly to Antoine's. It was one of the best $14-dollar-investments (just for the desert) I ever made to see her face when the waiter brought in a baked Alaska. The decorations of beaten egg whites included little birds on top, protecting the eggs in their nests, and featured the message scripted in egg white, "Welcome Beverly".
Son Bryan preferred lunches, especially at a sandwich shop called "Street Car," where we ate large fried shrimp sandwiches on French bread, guzzled Barq's root beer, and philosophized about life.
Although these dinners built our relationships by our enjoying each other's company, there was plenty of opportunity for good listening. There were also some serious times, even tears, which gave me an opportunity to lend a particularly sympathetic ear.
In wondering what happened in their relationship with their children, some parents say, "But I gave them everything!" What they mean is that they bought them everything. They did not give time, and more important, listening time.
All of us can recall that some of the best and most beneficial conversations we ever had were completely unplanned and spontaneous, resulting from relaxed occasions. However, although the best conversations may not be planned, the occasions can be.
An interesting and enjoyable activity is to use a tape recorder and interview young people for the "radio audience." It goes like this: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are privileged to have in our studio today Mr. Robert Thomas Reynolds, Jr. Mr. Reynolds has agreed to give us his views on a number of important world matters. He will not only share with us his personal opinions but let us know what other 16- year-olds think about the future. Bob, do you think global warming will have a strong influence in your lifetime?.......Do you think your generation will have the same economic opportunities your parents' generation had?.......Are you optimistic about world peace?"
The parents of Robert and his brother were amazed at the intelligent remarks that were coming out of the mouths of their children. They made the same remark that others have on similar occasions, "Nobody ever asked them for their opinions before on such serious matters."
I was delighted with his responses when I interviewed my nephew Stuart when he was quite young. Prior to that, I hadn't exactly thought of him as a person with a philosophical turn of mind and an ability to express himself well regarding political matters.
So, pay attention to the opinions of children and listen to what they have to say. It is amazing what it will do for relationships.
It should be added that there comes a time for many children when there is a reversal of roles in the sense that the predominant care and concern has to be assumed by the adult children for aging parents. Special times for listening are very much in order unless, of course, they live with you when you probably hear plenty. If they live apart, special occasions can be arranged, not just for birthdays and other holidays, but spontaneous ones or ones planned with the avowed desire to enjoy their company.
When I came home from the service, in addition to other occasions, I took my mother out to dinner once a week. Unfortunately, my father had died. She had the choice of any restaurant in town, but it almost always turned out to be Frank's Steak House. Anybody who knew my mother, Sally Bell, would know that I had no lack of opportunity to listen. However, I'm a Bell, too, and I got some words in also.
It is common experience for a person who loses a parent to have a sense of guilt, a regret about not having done enough for the deceased. Special times of attention before the parent dies can help mitigate this.