I’m not an idiot. I know it’s not always possible to drop what you’re doing to listen to your kids. But let’s be honest: not many of us do open-heart surgery or negotiate international crises at home. So when our kids need to talk, we could take a break and focus on them if we chose to. But most of the time we don’t. We keep doing whatever we’re doing and shift into an unconscious auto-listening/responding thing (“Uh, huh. Uh, huh”). If you feel like it’s more pressing to fold laundry or do your online banking instead of having a real conversation with your teen, that’s your choice, but at least be upfront about it. Auto-listening is a bad idea for these reasons:
- It’s not healthy. 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 disrespectful.
- It’s not fooling them. Even toddlers have been known to turn Mom 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 that “other things” are more important to you than your kids. You and I know you don’t really feel that way, so why would you send that message? Your teens 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 shut you 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 when you make a real effort to listen to your kids (with eye contact, 100% of your attention, and an open heart and mind) you’re setting the stage for them to listen more attentively to you and others.
Don’t assume an increase in listening is going to increase the common ground between you and your teen. (We’re working on communication here, not cloning.) 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?!”
Nothing is more important than showing your son or daughter that you’re always available to help, guide, and support. If your kid is troubled enough to come to you, this is when you need to be great. Personally, I can’t imagine anything that would take precedent over my desire to help my child. But if you’re truly involved in something that can’t be interrupted (even for 5 minutes) then at least stop momentarily, make eye contact, and say, “Sweetheart, I really want to hear this, and you deserve 100% of my attention, but I can’t give you that right now. Can this wait until 8 o’clock*?” (NOTE: You can’t use this excuse very often otherwise your kid is going to think “You never have time for me.”)
*When 8 o’clock arrives, don’t forget your promise. Don’t leave it up to your child to restart the conversation. It’s up to you to knock on your child’s door and say, “I’m ready to listen now. Is this a good time for you?” The intensity of the emotion that brought your son and daughter to you initially may have passed. You may have missed an opportunity to help. But by coming around as you said you would, you’re showing your child that you really do care. And hopefully, they’ll give you other opportunities to focus on them.