Sunday, January 9, 2011

Easy Listening (and I’m not talking about the music)…

It’s hard to be a good listener but is it possible to be too good of a listener? What’s the difference between a bad listener, a good listener, and too good of a listener? In order to keep kids talking, we need to be the right kind of listener – and it’s not as easy as it sounds. Actually, it’s easier than it sounds… but maybe different from what we imagine.

If there was anything in the world I ever wanted to be (in addition to a famous singer - which rest assured will never happen) it was to be a good mom. Part of that was being a good listener for my children which I thought meant making eye contact and asking probing questions to show that I was interested. No doubt I learned that in some edgy parenting magazine but apparently I got a little carried away. After our speech therapist, Dr. Halvorson, had several opportunities to observe Eli and I together – he finally squealed “stop staring at the kid, you’re making him crazy!” Alrighty then…

The eye contact issue I was able to adjust to quite easily – in fact it was a relief to know I didn’t have to drop everything and make eye contact every time he talked. But not asking questions, as easy as it sounds, was excruciating for a chatty parent such as myself. Dr. Halvorson had instructed me to hone this skill while in the car with Eli. One day I picked Eli up from a friend’s house and gave it a try. More often than not, the first thing out of my mouth would be “did you have fun?” His usual answer would be “yup!” and then silence. I would follow up with “so, what did you do?” or “did you play outside?” and he would follow up with “nothin, yup, nope.” Finally I would turn on the radio and we’d proceed home in relative silence.

This time I didn’t say a word and left the radio off. For the first few miles things felt awkwardly quiet. I almost had to stuff a mitten in my mouth to keep from belting out a question. Then the chatter started – and he didn’t stop yammering the entire way home. I heard about horses and Star Wars and lots of different Pokemon characters, and a few things I didn’t really need to know, like the fact that you can make a really bad word by just changing one letter in the word “puck” and the first time he used the “d” word (damn) I told him that it wasn’t a nice word, but “ahhhhhhhhhhhI learned it fah fah fah from you Mom!”

Now I’m not going to pretend that every time I chose to not ask questions it resulted in this rich level of conversation – but oftentimes it did. My probing questions and “good eye contact” didn’t encourage free-flowing speech. It only added increased pressure and expectations around speaking. After giving it some thought, I realized that kids often talk as a way of exploring the world around them. They aren’t necessarily looking for a discussion, reaction, or input. They just want to throw it out there, explore the topic, and play with it a bit. A good listener allows them to do that without judgment or reaction. Learning to be this type of listener was a key component to unearthing Eli’s voice.

Although an interesting experiment, there is a happy medium between greeting your child with complete silence and full motherly interrogation. Rather than asking questions, I make comments that may (or may not) inspire conversation. Instead of “how was your day?” I will say “my day was pretty boring!” Instead of “how is your hamburger?” I will say “my hamburger is great!” and then a period of silence. This is easier and far more productive than our daily “special time” segments where my goal was to get him to practice his speech techniques and not make speech errors – and needless to say, way more fun! Keep them talking!

1 comment:

  1. You know, this is interesting, because I've always responded with far more enthusiasm when I am *not* greeted by what I will call "probing small talk questions".

    Even today, for example, if I run into someone at the coffee machine at work, and they say, "Good morning! How are you?", I'm more apt to respond with a short, "Good, thanks," and then that's pretty much all she wrote for that conversation. But if that person were instead to just share a small tidbit with me (even a trivial one), such as, "Oh, that hits the spot... I can't imagine how people got by before they discovered coffee!" -- it's a good probability that I'll respond with a far greater collection of words and sentences. :-)

    I've always been this way. As a child, I clammed up when prodded with questions, especially when it was the beginning of a new interaction/discourse, such as meeting first thing in the morning at the breakfast table (which was often a source of unpleasantness for me, as I was not only unready to engage in small talk right away, but was grumpy due to not being a morning person).

    It wouldn't be surprising if I had become a stutterer myself, I think. As it was, I developed a series of repetitive habits and tics for a few years as a child, until I eventually dropped them, knowing that they were making me the subject of ridicule amongst my peers. But I know I also gained a lot of personal confidence in the hours I'd spend with my mother, who was most of the time a master of the listening skills you speak of.

    So I think you've really touched on something important here, for all parents who want to create an environment where their children open up voluntarily about what's on their mind, and feel free to engage intellectually and emotionally as simply two human beings.