I’m stinking it up as a parent AGAIN. All my kid wanted me to do was listen and I blew it. And I’d been waiting for days for him to talk to me about this one particular issue, and once he did, I went full-on parent on him. I unleashed shoulds and coulds and what-I-would-dos and added witty and poignant anecdotes for good measure. And as soon as I did, he stopped talking.
Sheesh. I knew better too, I really did.
Are you an über-parent like me? Something deep inside me wells up whenever I’m interacting with one of my kids and before I know it I’m behaving as if I’m in the middle of a heat at the Olympic trials trying to win a berth to compete for parenting gold in the Games. And nothing shuts my kids down quicker.
This kind of parenting, that I still insist on doing because I can be a very slow learner, is for me though, not them. I do it so I can feel good about myself in that I can confidently say I did my best, tried my hardest, and passed every bit of hard-won knowledge I could on to them for their benefit. I want to be able to lay my head down at night knowing that I left nothing unsaid, missed no teachable moments, and shined oh-so brightly as a mentor. What our kids want/need most often, is for me to listen.
I’ve understood this of them for a long time and still, I’m resistant to meeting this need of theirs. Because doing so feels like it will leave my needs unmet. And wowza, that is hard to abide by. I can vividly recall a time six years ago—SIX!—when I lamented to my co-worker and friend that my daughter flat out would not listen to any advice or encouragement I offered her. She was shutting me down as a parent. I was exasperated and at a loss on how to proceed with my progeny.
My wise and been-there-done-that friend relayed her own learning in this area and told me reflective listening is what worked best, wonders even, when interacting with her own daughter. She explained it goes like this:
Kid: “Such and such happened and then so and so said this and then whatever went down and now I feel this way.”
Your turn to respond now, parent, with simply and only a reflection back of what you just heard and you’re going to do so by matching the tone and sentiment your child used. Essentially, be their mirror.
Parent: “Oh, my gosh. That’s awful/great/crazy (whichever your child was indicating) that such and such happened and that so and so said what they did and then whatever went down and now you’re feeling hurt/let down/left out/angry/confused/happy/hopeful/excited,” (whichever your child suggested).
That’s reflective listening and my friend was REALLY good at it. She’d been doing it with positive results for years. I tried it out with our own kids and by God, it works! This is what our kids want. What they need. What they yearn for even if they can’t find a way to express this to us or they’re not sure they can without being disrespectful or hurting our feelings.
When our kids tell us what’s going on in their lives and how it affects them, they are not necessarily looking for advice or direction at every turn. Sometimes they are hashing out life aloud so they can hear how it sounds, feel the feels from it all, and work out the solutions to their dilemmas all on their own.
And this is ultimately what we want, isn’t it? Self-reliant kids, who know themselves and can navigate from point A to point B with their own smarts and know-how? And when they can do that, in part because we’re a terrific sounding board for them to bounce their sound waves off, isn’t that evidence of some ultra-terrific parenting? Parenting that felt really good to them as opposed to oppressive and self-serving? The kind of parenting they’ll actually seek out again and again?
Six years later, I’m still trying to master this concept and make it my go-to, especially now that our kids are teenagers. Because I know it works and I know it’s what they want/need because of how they react when I do it. They make eye contact and their words flow like never-ending wells, their shoulders relax and they breathe a little easier. If I falter and fail to resist the urge to über-parent and start spewing what I think is solid wisdom and on-point, relevant personal experience, their shoulders slump, their heads dip, the light dims behind their eyes, their words dry up and drought sets in.
I’ve made some progress; I catch myself when I lapse—and then I apologize. I tell them, “Gosh darn it, I just did it again, didn’t I?” “You just wanted me to listen and I blew it. I went on and on and I shut you down even though I thought I was helping you. I’m sorry. Please give me another chance and talk to me again soon. I’ll work very hard to just listen next time. I will.” And I do. And I eventually mess up again and this cycle runs on repeat.
In addition, to bridge the gap and reach a compromise on how far apart our kids can be from us in our attempts at über-parenting, I asked them for this courtesy. I asked of them if there ever is a time they do need more than listening and find they do need our advice or to know where we stand on an issue or our help with something they’re dealing with, that they’ll let us know. And to that, they both said, “There won’t ever be a time like that, but sure, OK.” And in response to that my mama heart hurts a little and I have to get over myself. Sums up the whole of what parenting is, doesn’t it?