To Love is to Listen

I have a confession to make – I’m a terrible listener. I like learning about other people, but I enjoy talking about myself even more. When something comes to mind, I say it far too often, even if someone else is in the middle of talking about something else entirely. (This post describes me perfectly.) My filter has improved over the years, but it’s something I’ve literally worked on for decades and I’m only 31 years old. So among my many fears of becoming a parent, not being a good enough listener was way up there.

Recently, I was reminded of how far I have to go upon reading some co-workers’ evaluations of me. They did say a lot of good things, but it was very clear that I could do more to listen and consider other people’s perspectives. To me, the starkest sign was that I said that I try to genuinely listen to others, while my co-workers said I sometimes just pretend to listen. Unfortunately, both of them are true – even though I try to listen, I still fail at it too often.

While this has some implications for my career, it was even more of a wake-up call for my parenting. You can suck at listening and still be a good employee, but you can’t be a good parent. As Sprout communicates more and starts speaking, my listening skills are only going to increase in importance.

For one, listening well is one of the best ways I can respect my son. Our society undermines children’s perspectives and feelings, telling them that they should be this way because authority says so or this way because it’s trendy. Not listening to children or perhaps worse, pretending to listen and then steamrolling them shows kids that they aren’t valued. And when parents don’t respect kids, they don’t receive respect back. Plus, if kids aren’t respected at home, they try to find from other places, many of which aren’t healthy. In fact, three of my favorite parenting resources really focus on how good listening connects to respect. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk has some phenomenal examples of ghonest active listening, Dr. Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block gives tips on how to listen when your kid is barely speaking, and this video talks about how listening is related to teaching the meaning of consent.

In addition to respecting my son, I want to be a role model for him. If he takes after his dad, he’ll already have a head start, but I still want to set a good example. As the consent video points out, if we wait until kids are teenagers to teach about consent, it’s too late. Consent is fundamentally about respecting other people’s preferences and boundaries, which we learn through good listening. Learning how to listen well is probably one of the best life skills I can pass on to Sprout.

Fortunately, becoming a mother has already set me down a path for improvement. The How to Listen book made me aware of a lot of tendencies I hadn’t even realized, like giving advice when people just want someone to listen. It also helped me realize that saying very little while actively showing that you’re paying attention can truly draw people out.

At the time, Sprout wasn’t communicating much beyond crying, so I practiced on our neighbors’ kids instead. Coming home from work, I ran into a couple of them coming back from the park. One of them started telling me extensively about his coin collection, declaring that he was going to invest in silver because “it was low and expected to climb.” At the same time, the other kid randomly proclaimed that “you can’t trust anyone.” When I asked, “Hmmm. Why do you say that?” he explained that someone he thought was cool called someone else gay and you shouldn’t do that. I tipped my hand a little by commenting, “But it’s okay for people to love whomever they want” and agreeing that it shouldn’t be used as a slur. In the less than 5 minutes I walked with them I learned so much about their lives by just listening and respecting what they had to say.

As Sprout still doesn’t have many vocabulary words, listening to him now involves carefully figuring out his needs by watching him. I can then vocalize what he wants to communicate but doesn’t have the language skills to do so. (This especially important considering our half-assed at best efforts at teaching him sign language.) Figuring out what he’s “saying” forces me to take his needs seriously, rather than brush them off as whining. It’s worked pretty well, calming him and helping him demonstrate more patience than I think he would otherwise.

My relationship with him has also helped lay the foundation for better listening skills by fundamentally changing how my brain works. One of the main reasons I’m such a bad listener is because I find it very hard to shut off my internal monologue. You shouldn’t think about what you’re going to say while someone else is talking, but my brain will be four paragraphs ahead if I let it. It takes a serious conscious effort for me to focus. Fortunately, this clarity of thought is something I find easier to achieve with Sprout than anyone else. Since I’ve returned to work, I’ve tried hard to make our time together on weekdays special without outside thoughts crowding it. As he had even less to say at the time, I learned to appreciate just watching him and enjoying his company. Now, I can sit on the lawn and watch him play in the grass far longer than I would have imagined before becoming a parent.

Parenting exposes your biggest strengths and weaknesses. As I face mine head-on with honesty, I find that the growth to become a better parent is making me a better wife, daughter, friend, co-worker and neighbor as well.

Are there any skills you’ve felt compelled to improve on as a parent?