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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Just a minute, sweetie

December 2, 2010

How much longer, Mom?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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7 Comments »

  1. Thank you ! This is such an important article!
    And I believe it is especially important for those new mums just like me. How many mothers do you see breastfeeding and checking the internet at the same time. This is where everything you are saying starts. If we don’t have the time to just BE with our children, where will this lead us ?

    Too many mothers think their kids don’t realise yet, they are too little. But no matter if they do or not (I believe they do tho) – it’s a good practice to be with them, show respect and stay focused for when they get older.

    Thank you !

    Comment by MadameHilmar — December 2, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  2. I agree with you.

    My 4 and 5yo know to say “excuse me” and I say, “I’ll be right with you as soon as I’m done with X” and then make sure the moment I have a breaking point I pay full attention to them. Sometimes that’s immediately, sometimes it takes a few minutes.

    So I’m able to be focused. Either on getting to a breaking point or on my children. And they know I will. Plus, they also know if they say “It’s important” I will drop what I’m doing to listen. We’re still working on their version of important vs. my version of important, but what do you want from a kindergartner and a preschooler? LOL I have realistic expectations :)

    Comment by jennydecki — December 2, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  3. I love this article! Yes! Yes! Yes! As a mother of two teenage sons, I had spent some time wondering if my efforts at “presence” had nurtured the type of relationships with them that would allow them to bring me “the big stuff” as teenagers? I wondered if accepting and honoring “the big stuff” of early childhood would have an impact, and the jury is in, and YES! I have to share that nothing could have prepared me for the feeling(s) I experienced when I first realized that this presence was important… that it mattered… that it really was as huge as I thought it was all along. One day I received a text from my oldest son, a junior, which was very odd because cell phone use is banned in the school. It said: “Mom, I left school. I am walking home. I can’t be there. We have to talk”. Of course, I panicked inside (who wouldn’t), but I was also touched deeply by those last 4 words: We have to talk. The big stuff. It was coming… what was it? In the few minutes it took for him to walk home I had had the chance to whip up a long list of worries: Is he OKAY? Did someone do something to him? Is he sick? Does the school know where he is? What will I do when he gets here? and so on… I waited for him by the door and somehow, when he came in, I was there… I was right there with him. Instead of flying off the handle (WHAT do you think you’re doing? WHO do you think you are? You can’t just LEAVE school like that?!!!!) I was able to be there and just listen, and learn from him what he needed. This began a conversation in which he shared his feelings about school, his anxiety about girls and all things social, his certainty that he had an anxiety disorder, and on and on. This conversation has extended into this year, now his senior year. It brought him to a point where he could say that he did not, in any way, want a counselor but that he was so unhappy, he wanted medication, he didn’t want to feel this way anymore, (my heart felt as it if it would break) which lead to more conversation about our worries (my husbands and mine) about mixing medication with the things teens tend to experiment with (weed, alcohol, etc). So many doors were opened on that day, with that simple text “We need to talk”. Yes, the big stuff. I feel that this effort at presence also protected him, physically… it allowed him to NOT self medicate… to not be alone in his worries… to be able to bring the big stuff home. There it was. I know, though, that the seeds were planted at the beginning of his life when, as a baby in my arms, we I chattered away to him and responded to his sounds and faces and gestures and people would say “You act like you’re really listening to him… like he really knows what you are saying”. We have always been very honest in our house, and I thank my lucky stars for whatever caused me to awaken and provide something quite different from the dysfunctional communication I experienced as a child. I have always told my sons how I feel, when I am able, when it is appropriate, when they can manage it (such as the conversation I had with same son as I saw his adulthood heading at me like a moving train and I said to him “I have NEVER had and 18 year old son before and I gotta admit I’m not all too sure I’m doing this right”, to which he replied “Well, I’ve never BEEN 18″. Man, I love that kid and how he can tell it like it is).

    I believe the other side of “presence” is in being “authentic”. It’s not just listening and being present to them, but it’s providing a climate where they find themselves listening and being present to US. No, we are not living in Nirvana. We have plenty of disagreements, tiffs about curfews, disgruntled redistribution of chores, and just plain old irrational emotional tantrums in our house. But, it seems that this commitment to presence has made a huge impact on all of us. Because we share our experiences and feelings with them, they have learned that this is what people do around this house…. I’m hoping that this will be something that they carry with them into parenting, should they become parents one day. I’m hoping that we have provided them with a map that they can follow and build on and pass on to their children. But, children or no children, life is full of relationships that so need our presence and authenticity. I seem to have run away with my thoughts here, and realize your article has stirred up a lot of emotion for me!! Sorry to run so long…. and thank you for your great, great article, and for this forum to reflect and share and have a place to be.

    Comment by NellieMarie — December 2, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

  4. Annie,

    This is such a great post…and sooo important. Kirsten and I speak about this all the time in our podcast. I’ve taught my kids to put their hand on my elbow or hip to let me know that they are waiting to talk to me. Then while I’m finishing my conversation, I put my hand on theirs to acknowledge them silently.

    This helps me split task with a little more sanity and then my kids get my undivided attention. They usually need less than 60 seconds.

    Hope this helps!
    Anamarie Seidel
    http://www.KnAChatCafe.com
    The humorous and informative podcast for parents raising children in a new millennium.

    Comment by Anamarie Seidel — December 2, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

  5. So true.

    My kids know that if they want to make sure I have heard them that I have to be looking into their eyes.

    Comment by Susie @newdaynewlesson — December 7, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  6. Great article, as usual–you know I am a fan, and just to make it interesting I will disagree with something:”Nothing is more important than showing your son or daughter that you’re always available to help, guide, and support.” The spirit of this is right: we love them unconditionally, but let’s not distort reality. It is important for them to know that you have many other things to do. even folding laundry is important–if it weren’t then why do you spend all this time doing it. So nothing is more important than playing position, unconditional love includes saying things like: “could you help me fold laundry while we talk?” or “This sounds very important. Let’s sit down and have a nice long talk after dinner.” Unconditional love includes sending off into the world knowing that they have to harmonize their needs with the needs and wants of others. You are the first stop on a long journey of that.

    Comment by Rick ackerly — December 9, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  7. PS. I agree that “Just a minute, Sweetie.” isn’t our best line.

    Comment by Rick ackerly — December 9, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

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