For parents, listening may become a lost art once children learn to replace wailing with talking. Day after day of inane (to the parent) questions and requests activate a defensive reflex that responds “Uh-huh” or “Don’t bother me” without even looking at the child. Occasionally this leads to worse dangers than a tantrum, as with the four-year-old who asked if she could cross a busy street alone—and her mother, preoccupied with another conversation, automatically replied “Sure, go ahead!”
Such unnerving situations aside, the parent who “never really listens” is setting the relationship up for a barrier between generations—and potential disaster, a decade or so later, when the child has much more serious concerns than “Why is the sky blue?” but feels it would be a waste of time to try to confide in Mom or Dad. So put aside your impatience and establish a sense of open communication early on.
Remember, what’s trivial to you is very important to the child. True, sometimes kids ask questions just to get attention; but if this happens frequently, it’s time to recognize that the child may have genuine reason to feel neglected. In any case, “What makes leaves green?” is an important question to him, and he has reasonable cause to feel hurt and belittled if you brush it off.
Never speak to your child without looking at her. Since small children have little concept of time to speak versus time to wait, “getting the interruption out of the way fast” is an easy habit to fall into. It’s also a dangerous one, and not just because you may miss seeing the child climb onto the stove to reach for the hot soup you wouldn’t let her ask for properly. You’ll also miss the expression on the child’s face: the hurt look, the plaintive smile, all the indications that may point to a deeper need than the immediate one.
If you can’t give an immediate answer to an inquiry, promise a time for the answer - in language the child can understand, such as “once we’re back in the car.” If a long string of questions is fired at you, say something like, “Obviously you have a lot to talk about. I have so much to do right now, but we can sit down together after dinner.” And it should go without saying, but keep your word!
Schedule uninterrupted blocks of one-on-one time. This does a great deal to encourage long-term openness, and may curb the problem of too many spontaneous questions when you’re genuinely busy.
Make sure you really understand what the child is saying - repeat it back to him in your own words, if you can. Don’t be like the parent who responded to “Where did I come from?” with a lengthy exposition on the facts of life before the child had a chance to explain he just wanted to know what town he was born in.
When it’s your turn to talk, pause frequently to listen to responses - and remember that the child’s “frequently” is shorter than yours. If you neglect this, you have only yourself to blame when the child develops the interrupting habit.
Empathize; respect the child; and recognize that her untried viewpoint has priceless insights to share!