“Don’t Worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.” (Robert Fulgham). You may have seen this quote passed around on your favorite social media network. In a more positive light we could also say, “You do your best teaching as a parent, not when the kids are fully attentive and listening, but when they are discretely watching you like a miniature secret agent.”
One of the most common questions I get from parents is, “How do I get my kids to listen?” This is an important and legitimate question and there are some great answers to that question, but I’ve found that we do some of our best and worst teaching when we think they’re not listening at all.
The cell phone spy lesson
A few weeks ago my 5 year old son taught me an important lesson about how the words and actions we think our kids do not hear can have a huge impact.
Berkeley, my 5 year old called me as I drove home from work one evening. He wanted to know when I would be home for dinner. I told him I was about 10 minutes from home and would see everyone soon. We swapped a few more items of small talk, nothing that I can even recall, and then he said goodbye and trailed off into the background. I had been trying to get him to let me talk to my wife just prior to his goodbye so I stayed on the line, hoping my wife would pick up the phone. She didn’t pick up. All I heard was stools on the kitchen floor and squeals from my newborn son. Then I heard it. Berkeley started to sing, “Daddy is the best. He’s better than the rest! Daddy. Is. The. Best!” He had no idea, and still to this day, has no idea I was listening to his joyful song.
That song had a huge impact on the rest of my evening and even how I interacted with him for the rest of the day. It made me feel better about myself and about our relationship. It gave me new confidence in our ability to solve problems and continue to learn together through genuine connection. It taught and reminded me that kindness and genuine affection break through barriers and strengthen others and the relationship.
3 important “they’re not listening” moments to be mindful of what we are teaching
- When you’re not talking to them: When you are talking to other people or in those “cell phone spy” moments. My oldest son is always interjecting questions in the middle of conversations I have with my wife. We’ll be talking quietly at the table after dinner, as the kids play in the adjacent room and all of a sudden Cuylar will poke his head around the corner and say, “What? Where did you go? What did you do? What are you talking about?” We often look at each other and think, “Wow, I hope I haven’t said anything we didn’t want him to know because he’s been eavesdropping the whole time.” Just as my son Berkeley didn’t know I was listening on the other end of the phone line, there are moments in our day when we may be talking to a friend or just muttering things to ourselves that our words may be overheard by our children and create lasting learning and impact in their lives.
- When they’re not listening to you: When they don’t seem to hear you, are ignoring you or do not do the thing you have asked. When our kids are not listening or are not compliant with our requests is an important time to remember to act and speak in ways that teach healthy principles and skills. First of all, it’s important to stay calm and act in a self regulated manner. (You can find some great resources for learning to manage your own big emotions and act in calm ways with the Quick Calm Toolkit and the TRU Calm Series.) The very act of maintaining a calm, regulated atmosphere, even when problems arise, has a significant influence on a child’s brain and emotional health, not to mention it strengthens the bond and relationship. When we find positive solutions and respond in positive ways, our children are more likely to learn to formally listen and acknowledge us and our directives. It also allows them to learn how to cope and act when things don’t go the way they would like them to.
- When you’ve got a problem of your own: As the quote at the beginning suggests, they are always watching whether we think they are listening or not. How we cope with and solve our own personal problems can teach our children so much. My wife and kids often joke about how Dad deals with mechanical problems that I try to fix. For some reason, fixing things with tools tends to get me upset more than almost anything else. I’ve never yelled at or hit my kids but I have certainly thrown tools, grunted and cursed things I’ve tried to fix in our house. I’ve recently thought about what my ridiculous reactions have taught my kids. It’s never been directed at them but they have learned that when Dad starts working on something, he gets grumpy and then he starts throwing things. That is not exactly how I want them to learn to deal with problems.
The truth is that they are always listening. They are always watching. They learn how the world “really works” by how they see others respond and interact with them. Just as I learned how my son “really” felt” about me when he didn’t think I was listening, so do your children get a feeling for how you regard them by what you say and do when they aren’t listening.
What stories do you have of lessons you learned or lessons your kids have learned when you didn’t think they were listening?