31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Listening Is An Essential Part Of Parenting

Single with Children: Listening is hard to do

By Susie Parker
Publication Date: 08/22/01

Listening. Sounds like a simple, easy to understand concept. Webster defines it two ways. The first definition is to simply pay attention to sound. That's easy enough. The second requires a little more in that it says "to hear something with thoughtful consideration.'' The first definition strikes me as rather passive and doesn't really exert any energy. The second meaning of this simple, but important, word, if practiced correctly, requires personal involvement.

When my children were younger, I was a stickler for yearly check-ups. I'm talking nearly obsessive compulsive here! I would schedule my kids doctor's appointments as closely to the day of their birthday as possible so that the pediatrician could chart, as accurately as possible, their height and weight. Everything by the book, that was my motto. Of course, it should be noted that my kids were kindergarten age before they realized the thermometer wasn't an extension of their body. You could say I was a little hyper-vigilant...and that would still be an understatement.

During one of Katie's check-ups, just a few days before the start of kindergarten, our doctor put her through her paces, smiling as I asked him over and over if everything looked "OK.'' As he was writing in her chart, no doubt noting that the patient was normal and healthy, even if the mother did appear a little neurotic, he pointed out that not only was it important to take note of physical development, but also to practice "active listening.''

What her pediatrician was talking about was something more than "looking for trouble.'' He explained that her world was about to expand exponentially with the advent of kindergarten. He taught me that it was important, at the end of every day, to ask such questions as "What was the best part of today for you?'' "What was the most difficult thing you had to do in class today?'' and "What happened today that you'll remember most?'' I remember thinking at the time that I didn't really feel the need to be prompted to make such queries. I was fairly certain there would be no end to the questions I would ask Katie every single day when she arrived home after school.

I don't think her doctor was too worried about my ability to question. Goodness knows he'd seen me in action. Quite wisely, he was gently pointing out that it was essential to be an effective listener - powerful words that I'm reminded of time and again.

When I became a single parent, my kids lost a pair of "in house'' ears. My ex-husband resides in a state more than 1,000 miles away and is no longer as accessible as he was when we were married. Both kids are far past kindergarten age, but their need to be "listened to'' has in no way diminished. In fact, the need to listen to becomes increasingly important with every passing year.

There's no denying that after a long day at work it's not always easy to switch into a "listening'' mode. There are chores to do, dinner to eat, homework to deal with, not to mention the competing attention of calls to return, e-mail and, well, LIFE. With all three of us engaged in these various activities, family time can slip away in the blink of an eye. Just like listening, finding the time to do so takes some real effort, but it's an effort worth making.

Even though our "older'' kids may not always appear as eager to share the minutes of their day, we must not be fooled into thinking they'll come to us when they have something to share. With a little active, friendly, sincere prodding, most kids are only too happy to share what they experienced. It's not enough to extend the invitation of an available ear. We must demonstrate our desire and determination at every available opportunity. Like everything else, the more we parents practice listening, the more accomplished we become, and the more we listen, a bilateral trust is formed and strengthened.

I remember a commercial that ran years ago that featured a child who enthusiastically runs to everyone in the house, bursting with a story to tell about something that happened. She runs to every single member of her family only to be rebuffed until, finally, she sits down with the family dog and shares her story. The truth of the matter is that if we don't make the effort to listen to our kids and offer guidance and advice, someone without their best interests and all the wrong motives might just find the time and attention we lack.

It may be cliche, but it's more true now than ever...time and attention spent on a child, regardless of age, is never, ever wasted. As a parent, I want to remember to practice the kind of listening Webster speaks of in his second definition, and make certain that my kids know I am not simply "hearing'' what they have to say, but that I am "hearing with thoughtful consideration.'' Listening doesn't simply mean "I hear you,'' but more importantly expresses "I hear you, and I care.''

Readers can e-mail Susie at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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