I would give anything to be a fly on the wall in my kids’ classroom or better yet on the playground at recess. Wouldn’t you? Not that I don’t trust them to make good decisions. Not that I don’t trust that they hang with a good group of kids but rather because I’d love to know who they are when no one is watching. Are they nice? Kind? Are they able to hold their own? Really, for me, my goal in parenting is not having kids with perfect grades, or being perfect at sports or otherwise. For me, my goal is raising kids that are respectful, have the ability to empathize, hopefully are able to support him/herself one day, stand up for themselves and in general is not a jerk. I’m mean, that sounds crass but seriously- please Lord help me raise kids that are not jerks. Simple enough, right? Hardly.
For as much as I’d like to be able to see what my kids are up to when I’m not around, we all know that’s not possible. What I can do however is ask good questions to learn as much as I can about their day, and shut my mouth to see if they are able to problem solve on their own. What!? You may be thinking? What are you talking about? As a parent I can’t just sit with my lips sealed! It is my job to solve their problems! But think about it. How many of us find ourselves asking the same questions after school? “How was your day?” “What did you do today?” If these are your questions likely the responses you are getting sound something like “fine,” “nothing.” How many of us are guilty of then following up with assumptive responses? We just so desperately want to know about their day and to be helpful. Unfortunately, by asking yes and no response questions we are not learning anything about their day and not allowing for the opportunity to identify any real challenges they may have actually faced.
I’ve found that by changing my approach to open ended questions I’ve been able to get a broader peek into their little worlds. “Who did you have lunch with today?”, “What did you talk about at lunch?”, “What did you play at recess?” Remembering to ask open ended questions is relatively easy (any question that is not answered with a simple yes or no response is an open ended question.) The next part is the hard part. Shut. Up. Sorry for the harsh statement but it’s true – and so much harder to do than it sounds.
Stop talking. See what happens if you ask open ended questions and then just sit silently. After you have sat quietly for what seems like a really long time, keep your lips sealed and sit quietly for a bit longer. Then, when they start opening up about their day keep sitting silent. Wait, listen, wait and then wait a bit more.
As much as we would all love to coach our kids in real time, to protect them and help them make good decisions, face tough conversations and certainly to help them pick great friends… we cannot. And we should not. While it certainly seems counter intuitive, the one thing that we can do is actually do nothing. Say nothing. Just listen. It is our nature as parents to tell, give advice and offer solutions. But by being good listeners, letting them use their own voice and by letting them tell us about their world, we can really get to know our kids. Listening is our way of being there for them even when we cannot actually be there. While I cannot be a fly on the wall at school and while I do not know everything that my children are doing when I am not around I can listen. I can learn to sit, be patient and just listen. By simply asking questions a different way, by listening, not telling, I have found a way to be there for them even more so than ever before.
It is our nature as parents to tell, give advice and offer solutions. But by being good listeners, letting them use their own voice and by letting them tell us about their world, we can really get to know our kids.
I certainly cannot promise that my kids will always be kind, will always be nice, empathetic or even that they won’t be jerks (please I hope not.) I can however work to improve my questioning skills, work hard at being a good listener and hopefully as they age and their challenges get greater they will always know that I will hear them out and that I am always truly listening.