inspiring joy filled living

Are You Listening?

Photo by Stephan Seeber:

April 3, 2023

I was terrified of the tween-age/teen-age years.  This is where it begins, people would say.  I can’t tell you how many times a stranger relished in telling me, oh just you wait.  Or my personal favorite, you have three girls?! Usually this was accompanied with an overly dramatic sigh.  Mind you, my babies were little, with the youngest still in diapers.  While I, a hot mess of a mama juggling three kids out in public trying desperately to check one thing off my laundry list of errands, would politely smile and then get away as quickly as possible.  A quick rant, I also couldn’t believe how many people would ask when we were going to try for that boy.  I’m happy with my three girls, believe it or not, our family is so thankful we have these three precious little ladies.  And frankly, none of your dang business.  I know I’m not alone in this, I’ve had many a girl mama friend share her own stories and mamas of boys recount similar tales as to when they were trying for that girl.  

Back to the warning, or rather threat.  The ominous cry.  A storm is brewing just off the horizon, and it’s headed straight to your house.  Holding my first baby girl, practically a newborn, the advice giving started almost immediately.  Parents who had older kids and grandkids, who had crossed through the murky water of the tween and teen years.  From well meaning friends to complete strangers in the grocery store.  The opinions and advice were free flowing like jungle juice at a frat party.  I couldn’t help but start to worry.  Worry that my precious, perfect angel baby would somehow morph into this mysterious, moody and unruly teenager. 

Being a mom for thirteen years now has given me more confidence and infinitely more wisdom than I had in those early years.  Throw in a couple more kids and a whole lot of life, and suddenly those other voices don’t seem to carry the weight they once did.  Like sifting through sand, the advice of others is now measured against my own parenting wisdom, what fits sticks and everything else is released back into the ocean.  As a barometer, it certainly makes a difference to consider the source.  Experience, intentions and knowledge all become factors as to how closely to take the suggestions under advisement.

In reflecting on the wins vs. the could-have-done-that-betters, the common denominator seems to be that when I listen first things tend to be better.  When I take the time to hear my kids rather than already planning my rebuttal, the result is oftentimes much more productive.  As parents it is very easy to fall into the I know best trap.  However, as kids get older it becomes imperative to not only listen–but to actually hear them.  What do our kids want? What do they like to do after school? Who is their best friend? Who hurt their feelings? What do they really think about not being chosen for Select soccer? Or the new kid in their class? Or needing glasses? Or how much they don’t like adding fractions? 

It matters because big conversations start with little conversations. Talking to kids about drugs, sex and bullying starts by knowing how they feel about their seat partner and their science homework.  Talking about eating disorders and suicide prevention starts by asking them what their favorite TV show is and what they want to be for Halloween.  When kids feel seen and heard it becomes much easier to talk about the hard stuff.  Trust is built one conversation at a time, over time.  And I mean conversations, not lectures.  Growing up in a household that thrived on lectures, I can speak to this one from personal experience.  Defaulting to I’m the parent, you’re the child only goes so far.  Of course there need to be rules and boundaries, there needs to be structure and expectations.  But there also needs to be freedom to have conversations that might be uncomfortable, on both ends.  And the patience to keep the conversations going or finding a new angle to have them if one way stalls out.  

I have learned over the years that my kids thrive when they feel seen and heard.  When their opinion matters.  The more valued they feel the more honest and open they become.  It isn’t a perfect science and of course we disagree and I don’t always listen or parent the way I should.  I make mistakes, lose my temper, say the wrong things or don’t listen as intently as I could.  What I do find to be fairly consistent when it comes to listening to my kids is that the less I say the better.  The fewer words out of my mouth, usually mean the more out of theirs.  Less judgment, less criticism, less advice giving usually means more honesty, transparency and a willingness to listen to the tad bit of opinion I do add.

Biting my tongue is hard.  It can be so hard.  All my motherly advice wants to launch out of my mouth and bubble wrap them up.  I want nothing more than to protect them from the hurts of this world.  To arm them with every tool possible, draw up every scenario like a defensive football playbook, fill them to the brim with advice so that there is no room for error.  Except that isn’t how parenting works.  Or life for that matter.  If that were the case the strictest parents would win hands down every time.

Instead the goal is to put ourselves out of a job.  To equip, prepare and guide the next generation of adults.  To remember that kids will grow up and we won’t always be there to hold their hands.  Rather, the process for teaching that kind of personal responsibility starts now.  The ability to think and make good decisions without mommy being there also starts now.  And it is while they are young that we must be patient enough to listen to all the things they want to talk about in order to pave the way for the things we need to talk to them about.  Because they won’t accept the advice unless they are willing to hear it.

I’m only at the tip of the iceberg, as we are just dipping a toe into the teen years.  It’s the very beginning of my journey as a parent of a pre-teen/teenager.  I know there are big conversations, decisions, and mountains to climb.  That there is so much that I don’t know yet.  I can only speak to the fact that as a human I know I am at my best when I feel seen and heard.  My feathers smooth a bit when I don’t feel dismissed.  My confidence soars when there’s acknowledgement for the good things. And when criticism is warranted, that it is fair.  I imagine across the board our kids feel that way too.  As they get older, the desire to be their own person who is capable of making decisions becomes more important.    

Listening is a parenting superpower.  It might be one of the greatest tools we have in our parenting tool belt, to really know the hearts of our kids and for them to know that we hear them and see them just as they are.