It is so important to be actively engaged with your children. I get it. Sometimes you want your kids to shut up and give you some space to think. Sometimes we even justify this by talking about how hard of a day we have had or how badly your child needs to learn to entertain themselves. I tell myself these very same things all the time. Then, about an hour or so later, I remind myself of how bad this approach is for my children who need to have someone listen to them.
Dr. James Dobson tells us that, “the amount of live language directed to a child (not to be confused with television, radio, or overheard conversations) is vital to her development of fundamental linguistic, intellectual, and social skills.” (The New Strong-Willed Child, 96) This quote was in regards to fourteen-month-old children. However, this need never goes away. From an extremely early age, our kids need us to pay close attention to them. They need us to listen to what they have to say.
Beyond that, they also need us to validate what they are saying. It is not enough to just nod our heads to give an indication that we hear them talking. There must be an engagement to the conversation on our part. If your child is telling you about something that happened to them at school, it would be a good idea to ask them how that made them feel. This is not a natural approach and must be deliberate on our part. Most of what our children experience in life are somewhat petty and unimportant, at least in comparison to the adult world that we are all a part of. However, to them, it is not petty and unimportant. Our children do not have much control over their lives but they are in control of their small, little world and they want to tell you about it.
I am reminded of a trip that I took, earlier this year, with my daughter. I had a family member that had passed away so Sydney and I were making a trip back out to Illinois for the funeral. It was about a 650 to 700 miles trip that we would be making in one day. This would be the first trip that Sydney and I had every taken of this length and I was unsure how she would handle that long of a drive.
Here is the thing. I like to listen to music when I drive and I often become frustrated when there are constant interruptions, especially to songs that I really enjoy. I could literally make this entire drive with very little conversation whatsoever. Sydney, on the other hand, would rather talk constantly than listen to the radio. This is not a formula for a successful road trip. On the night before we left, she asked me what all we would do to entertain ourselves on the way there. “What will we do? Will we just talk or are there games to play?” In my mind, I thought, “You can sleep in the back seat the entire trip and I will listen to the radio.” Does that make me a bad father? Probably not. I didn’t actually say that to her. It was just my selfish thoughts processing the situation. I thought for a second and they replied, “sweetie, we can do a lot of things on the trip and these ideas all sound great.”
The more I thought about my reaction, the more convicted I became about my attitude. Sure, not everything that Sydney says to me falls into my interests. She will often ramble on about things that she does with her friends or something that she has seen on television. That’s probably not any different than your kids, though, right? The problem with this is that, as unimportant as we see these things as being, they are of the utmost importance to our children, so much so, that they feel that they need to connect with us in regards to them.
Now, do not get the need to listen to your children confused with the need to tell them no. Not everything that your children say to you should be met with a positive response on your part. It’s perfectly okay to tell them no. It’s not okay to ignore their requests and comments.
We need to engage with our kids in those moments. Remember, you are building on something with every conversation that you have with your children. You are either enforcing to them that you are interested in them and that they can trust you. Or, you are enforcing to them that their opinions do not matter and that they are just a bother to you. The problem here, among many, is that eventually, they will stop talking to you altogether. There may come a day when you wake up and realize that you haven’t had a meaningful conversation with your child in far longer than you can remember. They will keep on growing up but will do it without you. It is entirely possible for a person to live in your house with you but be a total stranger.