A few weekends ago, while cheering on the 3rd grade Knights basketball team, my mother pointed my attention toward incoming fans. “That’s your first soccer coach over there.” I squinted; both he and my eyes have grown much older since my days playing for the Wookies.
Baton Rouge soccer was in its infancy when I started playing. Not only was I the only girl on the team, I was one of the few playing at all. I loved the game (still true) even though I wasn’t a very good player (also still true). I’m not all that competitive, and truth be told, I’m kind of scared of the ball. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that when it came time to hand out end-of-year awards, mine was this: Best Listener.
Which, once you get past the implied lack of athleticism, is actually a pretty awesome award for a kid to win. Listening is an important job skill, tied to effective leadership and healthy relationships.
Designate a time to listen to each of your children.
Children learn by observing our behavior. When we are inattentive, scrolling through social media feed or thinking about what we’ll cook for supper, they pick up on our disinterest. Worse, they learn to mimic these behaviors. Acknowledge distractions when they are present ("I’m having a hard time paying attention. Let me finish my task so I can really listen.") so that kids start identifying potential listening barriers themselves and learning how to push past them.
The majority of our communication is nonverbal. Make sure you “listen” to body language and facial expressions along with your child’s words. Ask follow up questions. In short, make this chunk of time all about your child.
Cook (or do something else) together.
If you have a middle schooler, I have no doubt you laughed your way through that first tip. Sometimes it seems like nonverbal communication makes up 100% of what they say.
How was school?
What are you up to these days?
As a middle school teacher, I can reassure you that kids do, indeed, talk. Maybe not to you, and probably not on command. Sometimes it seems like the more interest you show, the less willing they are to reward you with information. I’ve got a 14-year-old; I know your pain.
One of the best ways to get an adolescent talking is to do things with them. Cooking’s great because, hey, you were probably planning on eating anyway, and plus, you’ve got a structure for your conversation. But your common interest doesn’t have to be so practical. Love the outdoors? Go explore. Music fan? Have your kid teach you why Spotify is superior to your current music platform (Truth!).
Take a quiet walk.
When we talk about listening in my study skills class, we start with Julian Treasure’s TED talk. In it, he explores why we’re losing our ability to listen and what we might do to remedy that loss. My favorite of his tips is to listen for “channels” of sound.
Take a walk with your child, paying particular attention to all the sounds you can hear. Bird calls? Laughter? Crunching leaves? How many sounds are you hearing all at once? Can you trace each sound to its source?
Listening for channels of sound is fun to do in all kinds of environments: coffee shops, traffic, grocery stores. Point out sounds you find particularly satisfying. Compare which ones work your last nerves.
There are all kinds of language-based board games out there that require us to listen. Apples to Apples, Scattergories, and Outburst both have versions for younger players.
My favorite, 20 Questions, doesn’t require any equipment at all, yet has carried us through many bored moments waiting for appointments to begin. Make the rules as easy or as complicated as they need to be to make it fun.
You didn’t think you’d get out of this without hearing about the power of books, did you? Reading out loud to your child is amazing for vocabulary development. If you ask good questions (Why do you think the character did that? What would you do in this situation?) you’re building analytical reasoning and empathy, too.
As my daughter entered adolescence, I’m telling you, there were days she didn’t want to speak to me, even non-verbally. Frankly, there were days I didn’t particularly enjoy being around her, either. Those days happen; they just do. But no matter how bad things were, she and I could both count on our reading time right before bed. Because what’s stronger than anger? Imagination. Books allowed us to escape whatever conflict we'd had with each other and focus on the magic of Harry Potter, the strength of Katniss Everdeen, the allure of vampire boyfriends.
As children do, she outgrew those stories, so now we read side-by-side, comparing notes when it’s time for bed.
In that noisy gymnasium, Coach Teeple told me about his children and his children’s children. I’m grateful, of course, for his introducing me to the beautiful game, but even more so for his recognition of the gift of listening.
Martha Guarisco is a National Board Certified English Language Arts teacher and freelance writer. Prior to joining the faculty at Episcopal 13 years ago, she taught in Ascension Parish, where she was Teacher of the Year. She earned both her BA in English literature and her M.Ed. in English education from Louisiana State University. One of her particular areas of recent study is literature’s effect on adolescents’ empathy development.