Sometimes when very young children start telling a real or imagined story, we might find ourselves switching off, giving listening noises and nods, while simultaneously scrolling and working on something else. Perhaps we can’t really understand what they’re saying, it seems boring, or we just don’t have the time. However, by changing our attitude to listening we can give and get so much out of our children’s chattering.
This changed attitude is just a decision to hear, and an expectation to really enjoy, what they’re saying. And it doesn’t have to be for half an hour. About five minutes of focus is all it takes. Five small but whole, focused minutes in which we are looking directly at our child, thinking about what they’re saying, and genuinely commenting on their narrative. At the end of five minutes, we will either be enjoying it so much we will want to keep going or tell them that now we need to stop listening and continue at a time which we can specify.
This small commitment of dedicated listening is enormously important for our children and for ourselves. It sets up a mutually respectful understanding early on showing our children that, while we have things we need to get on with, they interest us and are worthy of our full attention. It also assuages the guilt of a busy parent because a small amount of complete focus on our children is more important for their sense of self than an entire day of us being present but not truly available.
Deeply listening to our children’s stories also shows us who they are and how they are experiencing the world. When we ask for detail, which they may not recall and need to imagine, they reveal to us how they want the world to be. Many gems lie in an imaginative tall tale.
By modeling listening to our children, we teach them to be interested in other people and in us as people. And children are fascinated by our own stories of how we met their other parent and of the adventures we’ve had. They love to ask questions about unruly relatives and family lore. It helps them anchor their life and build a picture of who they are.
It can seem that so much is required when, truly, it can be very little.