Synergistic Parenting

Hear with your ears; listen with your heart


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Listening is one of the most difficult skills we parents dare to learn.

The child who senses that you are really focused on the child, looking into the child's eyes, listening thoughtfully, may feel encouraged to talk, to share. Often the child may want someone only to listen. The child may want to "free associate" — to explore different thoughts and feelings or observations as the child's thoughts wander. The child may want the parent to say very little, only to listen.

If there is long silence, parents may re-phrase something the child just said as a question. This affirms that you are hearing what the child said, and may lead your child to talk some more, or may remain silent.

Often the child wants no suggestions or advise from parents, but for parents to listen in this focused, attentive way. If they want advise, they will often ask for it. Your child can advise you, perhaps subtly, when they want you to listen, and when they want you to offer advice. If uncertain, we can ask if they want us to listen or they want us to offer suggestions, which shows our respect for this child.

Sometimes a child may say very little. The child may be silent, or respond to us with a single word or short sentence, or give us a cold look. Difficult as it is for parents, we need to respect each child’s privacy. Listen carefully to each child, and each will suggest to us when they do not want to interact with us. Perhaps each of us parents has times when we feel introspective — feel that we want to keep our thoughts and problems to ourselves. We don’t want others intruding. That is how our children sometimes feel. Our relationship with each child grows stronger as we allow this space, difficult as that may sometimes be.

For interrupting try a "talking stick"
Interrupting may stifle talking. Parent and child must develop the skill and habit to really listen to others, thinking about what is said, and the feelings shared, until the person is finished, or pauses; then we may respond. Beware if you're thinking about your response while your child talks. Learn focused listening.

The "talking stick" is a very useful tool. A Native American talking stick is often adorned, but its purpose is to let one person talk while all others listen. Only the person who holds the talking stick can talk; all others must be silent — and hopefully carefully listen — until that person offers the talking stick to the group. When two or many all want to talk, pick up a stick or pencil to use as a talking stick. A talking stick says to those nearby, "Listen to me!" It says to the one holding it, "Speak your feelings reverently," then offer it to the group.

As a family project to encourage listening, you might create your family's decorated talking stick to place it in a central place in the home. When any family member wants others to listen, pick it up. When a family meets to discuss a family situation, a talking stick may help each person feel that they can speak and are listened to and heard.

The illustration at the top is a talking stick used by Dr. Carol Locust.

Please think carefully about what Dr. Rachel Remen says, "Listening generously to another person is a very powerful way to put them in touch with their hidden strength. It's the power of presence and humanity and love." It shows respect for the person.


What is she saying that is not spoken? What is she implying? What do you think she seeks? Or does she simply want to talk about the game?

Five mothers and sons learn to listen
Five mothers and their sons, who are all avid readers, decided to talk about a book for an hour once a week when the boys were sixth graders, and it is ending as they graduate from high school in Lexington, Mass. Two rules are boys don’t sit next to each other, and they select the book. The mothers got in touch with what the boys wanted to read. When they talk, not every one liked the book, but they discuss the feelings a book has triggered for them. The talk is animated and revealing.

Boys have absorbed from our culture to separate from mothers, so they are not mama’s boy, while mothers also do not want a mama’s boy. Barney Brawer, an education consultant, said of this group, “Boys learned more nuanced understanding of the adult woman who is his mom.” One boy said, when we’re talking books, we’re not mothers and sons. We’re people.

The report was written by Barbara Meltz in the Boston Globe in January 2004. This is a model we can try to develop variations based on interests of your sons and daughters.

What is more ennobling than to realize that your son, your daughter recognizes that parents are people!



Copyright © 2004, 2006 John F. Yeaman