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Zip Your Lips: Commonsense strategies to get your kids to listen

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

—James 1:19, NIV

Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.

—James 1:19, MSG

Kids and their personalities come in all kinds of packages: chatterboxes who amass friends wherever they go; quiet souls who are content to spend time alone; those who enjoy being the center of attention; those who thrive on being in the background; introverts who carefully consider their words; extroverts who brainstorm aloud. No two are alike.

And yet when it comes to connecting with your children, there is a common ground. It starts with you listening to them, says H. Norman Wright, author of How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen.

“When you listen to your child or teen, you give him or her a sense of importance, hope, and love that your child may not receive any other way,” Wright explains. “Through listening, we nurture and validate the feelings the child has, especially when he or she experiences difficulties in life.”

Listening well means hearing all of what your child shares, not just her words. It involves hearing “the way it’s packaged,” Wright says. Her body language and tone of voice can reveal the full story.

Listening also means not interrupting, finishing her sentences for her, or drawing a conclusion before she finishes. Too often parents think they know what their child is going to say, and they race to the end. But kids need validation. Real listening begins with silence, not presumptions. Instead of assuming, ask questions. You never know when your child will surprise you with a completely different point than what you had in mind.

Here’s another aspect to consider: Do you make more of a big deal when A) your kids do something wrong or B) your kids do something right? Do you make it a point to “catch” them obeying, sharing, helping? Everyone needs appreciation. Children shut down emotionally when parents only shine a limelight on their shortcomings. Instead of saying what you don’t want (“Stop being mean to your brother”), state what you do want (“Speak kindly to your brother”). The slight shift from a negative instruction to a positive one can keep your child’s heart receptive and keep the lines of communication open.

Some parents claim “constructive criticism” is helpful. The reality: It’s an oxymoron and doesn’t exist. If you’re criticizing, you’re being critical, not compassionate. Criticism never builds up the listener, Wright notes. It “either crushes the spirit or elicits defensiveness.”

Have arguments become a habit in your family? A child prone to arguing can rattle off reasons for his stance faster than you can blink. Resist the urge to take his bait. State in one sentence what you want your child to do. Each time he voices a reason why he shouldn’t have to obey, simply repeat the sentence. Here’s an example:

Sam: Can I play on the computer?

Parent: Yes, after you wash the dinner dishes.

Sam: But I cleaned up after breakfast.

Parent: I appreciate that, and now you need to wash the dishes.

Sam: It’s not fair. It takes so long, and I won’t have time to play my computer game.

Parent: You may be right, but you need to wash the dishes.

Communicating well with youngsters also means speaking their “language.” If your child is more of an emotional type, begin your response with feelings rather than facts. “For example,” Wright explains, “if your child says, ‘I’m worried about the spelling test tomorrow,’ don’t jump in with, ‘Give me your list of words and I’ll start quizzing you.’ He or she may need your help eventually, but respond first with a statement such as, ‘Thinking about your spelling test has upset you. I can see your concern in your eyes. It will sure be wonderful when the test is over, won’t it?’ Once you’ve connected with your child in his or her language, your child may be open to practicing the spelling words with you.”

Some children blurt out whatever they’re thinking. Others take a while to mull over their responses. The latter aren’t dumb; they like to think about what they’re going to say before they say it. The lag time often prompts chatterboxes (or impatient parents) to conclude that the thinker didn’t understand the question, and they repeat themselves. Wright offers a better approach: “When you ask him a question say, ‘Here’s something I’d like you to think about and then let’s talk about it’ or ‘Tonight at our family gathering we’re going to talk about [insert topic]. I thought you would like to know in advance.’”

Here are some more communication tips to put into action:

· Make requests rather than demands.

· Make your requests specific.

· Don’t lecture.

· Use “I” statements instead of accusing your child with “you” statements.

· Be aware of your tone of voice and body language.

· Don’t yell.

· Don’t explain all your reasons.

· Be consistent; don’t bargain.

Excellent communication doesn’t just happen; it takes conscientious work. Make it a habit to zip your lips and listen, really listen to your children. You need to hear first in order to be heard.


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