Why (and When) It’s Important to Listen to Your Kids

This month we are talking about the importance of listening. Our understanding of what children need for development, and the importance of attending to child development in general, has come a long way since the time of our grandparents when “children should not speak unless spoken to” or only be “seen and not heard”. Of course, now we know and appreciate the importance of responsive, supportive, and cooperative relationships between caregivers and children.

Children learn and develop through experiences and interactions with people and things in their environment. When their basic need for a supportive caregiver is met, they are better able to seek out experiences and try new or difficult things because they have a secure base from which to explore. Engaged, reciprocal interactions between a responsive caregiver and child build the supportive, nurturing relationship crucial to healthy development. Of special note to teachers with students experiencing adversity: having at least one stable and caring relationship is a strong protective factor for children during times of life stress and adversity. As a caregiver (or teacher), following your child’s lead in what they are interested in, and responding and encouraging them to explore their interests are key to brain development as well as to strengthening the relationship between you. Spending time in active and supportive listening with children is also an important part of this relationship.

This might lead you to think, “If I go around listening to my child all day, we will never get anything done, and every time I ask them to do something it will turn into a power-struggle. Isn’t it important to teach children how to accept limits?” There are two important points to address here. The first is that, as in everything, balance is important. The reason so much of parenting advice focuses on the importance of listening to your child is because we are still grappling  with the idea as a culture that this is an important part of supporting their development. Furthermore, for most people, active listening to others of any age is difficult. Even when talking to adults, most people only listen for how what the other person is saying relates to them, while thinking about how they are going to respond. It is a skill to be able to listen to hear another person for the sole purpose of understanding their experience. And because we find this difficult, and because it is important for children to be listened to, general advice will most often stress listening to children without talking about balancing it with all the other important things you need to do.

The second point is to recognize that we often conflate “listening” in regard to children with “following directions” or what some call “minding”. So when we talk about the importance of listening to your child, for the most part, we are referring to the literal experience of listening, not the colloquial meaning of “minding”. So when you are in the middle of setting a limit, this may not be the time to practice “listening to your child” in terms of “following their directions or desires” which almost certainly will end with an argument or power struggle. On the flip side, when we make more time to practice simply listening to our children, this nurtures our relationship, they feel seen and heard, and in turn, we may have an easier time when setting limits because the relationship is stronger.

We all want children to have the best start in life, and to grow to be independent, self-reliant young people. One of the best things you can do for your child’s development is to give them your attention and engagement. Listen and encourage their interests in the world around them and you will be nurturing the experiences and relationships that brain development thrives on.



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Image: © Kids In Transition to School


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Katherine Pears


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