You know what they say about parenting: It’s possibly the most humbling job most of us will ever have.
Well, sometimes, being a parenting writer can be even more humbling. Like, the humble cherry on top of the humble pie. Especially when your assignment is to write 1,000 words on “How to get your kids to listen.”
Read it here: How to get your kids to listen>
When senior editor Tracy Chappell asked if I would take on the story for the October issue of Today’s Parent, I said yes immediately. Why not? Interesting subject, and I don’t know that many freelance writers who'd turn down the opportunity to write a relevant feature for a national magazine. Maybe 10 minutes later, though, I was already wracked with anxiety. How on earth would I ever do justice to the topic when I couldn’t even get my own kids to close the refrigerator door or come downstairs for breakfast? And how on earth would I even begin to approach a topic that enormous? Almost every parent I know could fill pages just listing the ways in which their kids ignore their seemingly reasonable requests: What could I possibly say that could make a difference?
Still, I had a job to do. And so I started hunting around for interviewees, and reading some of what the experts say. In particular, I went back to perennial favourite: Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I talked to parenting educator Doone Estey, and to a Thunder Bay, Ont., parenting educator and social worker, Christine Vita.
And I realized that I needed to rethink my whole approach to the subject—not to mention the way I interacted with my own children. Here are some things that I learned:
First, kids don’t listen to us, their parents, because kids are human beings with their own agendas. And sometimes—often—our agendas simply don’t match up with theirs. My agenda might be to make sure everyone gets to school on time. My seven-year-old’s agenda, though, might be to find and rearrange all the glittery rocks in his room into a three-dimensional collage that simply has to be finished right now, because that’s where his creative vision lies. My nine-year-old’s agenda, on the other hand, might be to read the book that he is reading, in bed, in his pajamas, even though, “Breakfast is ready, Rowan. Rowan, breakfast is ready. Rowan, if you don’t get up and get dressed right now and come down for breakfast you’re going to be late. Rowan—are you listening to me? I’m not going to say it again: You're going to be late!”
This, of course, is maddening to parents. But it’s equally maddening to kids to be told to stop doing the thing that they would like to be doing in order to do the thing that we want them to do. Sure, it’s often true that our agendas are more sensible, more practical, more affordable, more in tune with the realities of the work and school day. But it occurred to me that I was really good at completely ignoring or devaluing my children’s priorities. Which, of course, didn’t do any great things for getting them to cooperate with me. What I try to do now—and believe me, I by no means remember to do it consistently — is at least acknowledge the fact that they have an agenda, even if it might not be entirely consistent with my own. So I will try to remember to take a few moments to admire Isaac’s pretty rock collage, sit with him as he explains each piece to me, ask him how much longer he needs to work on it before he gets ready for school, and try to work out a schedule and a compromise. Similarly, I try to remember how much I hate to be interrupted while I’m reading, and approach Rowan more gently in the mornings: “When you finish that chapter, why don’t you bring the book downstairs to breakfast? It’s really tough to put down a good book.” It doesn’t always work, but I do think my kids respond more positively when they sense that I’m acknowledging and respecting the fact that they have values and interests, just like I do.
Read more: How to become a Yes parent>
Second, and this is so simple it’s radical: We can’t really make our kids listen to us. Sure, we could physically force a child to conform to our desires, but of course that’s a strategy that’s rife with drawbacks (assuming it’s even possible with an 80-pound fourth-grader). We can threaten kids with punishments if they don’t obey, or we can offer them rewards if they do. I’ve used both these strategies, and sometimes they’re effective and sometimes they’re not. But, ultimately, I want my kids to make their own choices and do the right things not because they’re getting rewarded or punished, but because they have the ability to make good choices.
All of which means: parents have to give up control. Possibly a lot of control. And this is hard for many of us. But sometimes it yields results. I’m thinking of a particularly pokey bedtime with Rowan that occurred as I was researching the article for Today's Parent. I was lying in the dark next to him when I realized that I hadn’t heard the hum of his electric toothbrush. “Did you brush your teeth?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said cheerfully.
“Are you going to?”
“Nope,” he said, again.
“OK,” I said to him, squelching every parental impulse I had to insist that he get out of bed right now and take care of his teeth. “It’s your mouth.” I couldn’t resist adding, in what I hoped was a sincere tone, “You’ll probably have to explain to the dentist why your teeth are dirty, but I’m sure you can handle that.”
And then I shut up. After about 10 seconds, Rowan pushed aside his covers and got out of bed. “I’m going to go brush my teeth now,” he said.
In the darkness, I’m sure he couldn’t see my grin and fist pump.
And then, of course, a couple of nights ago I tried the same strategy, and he said, “I think I’ll just brush my teeth in the morning.” And I lay there in the dark, deflated. But you know what? Nobody died. They are his teeth. And he did brush them in the morning. At least a partial win for everyone.
Third, if I want my kids to listen to me, I need to remember to listen to them. I’m as guilty as anyone else of rushing my children through seemingly meandering stories, of cutting them off midsentence to ask if they’ve finished their homework or put away the dishes, of scrolling through my text messages while they’re talking to me, saying, “Of course you like broccoli!” to a child who has just told me that he doesn’t. When I took some time to notice just how often I didn’t listen to my own kids (it’s embarrassing), it made me realize that maybe they were justified in not listening to me: After all, I was modelling the very same behaviour. And so I’m trying to actually listen to them more, to hear what they’re saying and take it in. I don’t have to agree with it, but I can at least acknowledge it and accept it.
Is my house now a bastion of peace and cooperation? Nope. Do I remember to consistently implement all the strategies I learned while writing my “not listening” article? Nope.
But I sometimes remember some of them. I try to put down my phone. I try to look at them while they talk to me and actually acknowledge their feelings and their priorities—even when they are at odds with my own. Wherever possible, I try to let them make their own decisions about what they will and won’t do and when, and I try to let them succeed or fail on their own terms: Maybe homework won’t get done, or a child will go to bed without brushing his teeth, or to school with messy hair. But maybe he’ll have read a chapter in a fantastic book or have created a work of art he’s proud of. I’m trying to remember that listening is a two-way street, and that we all need to get at least some of our needs met—or at the very least, acknowledged—most of the time. It’s a work in progress—as are we all.
For the record, the “not listening” story was the hardest magazine piece I’ve written since I first started freelancing. But I think it was also the most rewarding. (Also for the record: There was just no way I could keep the topic to 1,000 words. I handed in the story nearly double my word limit, with apologies Tracy, who took it in stride and edited it down to something manageable. Thanks for that, and thanks for the assignment! Sure, it humbled me, but it also made me a better parent.)