In the first post in this chapter, Listening Is The First Step To Understanding, I lamented we've become a world out of communication balance. Everyone wants to talk, no one wants to listen. And the problem with that? I believe listening leads to understanding, understanding to empathy, and empathy builds the capacity to care for something outside ourselves. Unfortunately, parents often point their children inward, not outward.
Often it's what they're instructed to do. I've read a lot of parenting blog and magazine articles that teach us how to develop our child's self-esteem. They beg us to understand how important it is to raise a child who has high regard for who he or she is. I used to read these articles. Then I quit. I found them depressing, these endless lists of steps parents should take to make sure their children feel good about themselves. At the end of each one I found myself convinced: this is why the world is so screwed up.
Maybe I feel that way because I see the articles working. Everywhere I look today I see young people who are firmly committed to climbing the world's highest pedestal. Whether it's because they excel in school or sports or church or one of a dozen other activities parents use to help their children make that climb, our kids are building resumes of accomplishments that allow them to hold their heads up high and shout: look at me.
The problem with teaching our kids to attach their self-esteem to resume builders is the inescapable reality resume failures lurk around every corner. A bad grade waits for the good student, defeat waits to launch agony upon the victory celebration, the girl who makes you feel like you're the greatest guy in the world is one glance away from leaving you for the greatest guy in the world. Every earthly thing we could possibly attach our importance to is fleeting.
All of this leads me to offer this view on our boys' self-esteem. I'm uninterested in it. I don't believe we were put on this earth to hold ourselves in high regard. If my own life has taught me one thing it's the more I focus on feeling good about myself the less attention I pay to feeling good about the people around me. In doing so, I end up being much better at masking low self-esteem than escaping it.
Does that mean I want our boys to feel bad about themselves? No. Because here's the thing. The people I've seen living lives focused on loving and serving others - they always seem to place just the right value on themselves. I know countless people who've never hoisted a trophy, been elected to office, or had an office door nameplate engraved deep and dark with CEO or PHD, who in spite of that, march through life full of self-esteem. Sometimes I wonder if that might be precisely why they do.
By now you think this conversation has gone off track. One minute I'm talking about teaching a child to listen and now I'm all the way down the road of a child's self-esteem and how little I care about it. But they are connected. I believe we were created for two reasons. To love God and love the people around us. To work against either of those things is to work against our purpose and inherent value, which inevitably kills any self-esteem we might have. And here's the thing: neither of those purposes can be achieved without listening.
That's why it's important to intentionally listen to our kids. Listening doesn't come easy to us, at least it doesn't to me. We have to be thoughtful and disciplined about it. Purposeful in teaching our kids to do it. That's how we grow to understand them, and grow them to understand others.
So how do we do this?
When we listen to our kids:
We need to look them in the eye. This is the surest way to convey I'm invested in what you're saying. I'm fully engaged in this conversation and it's value to me doesn't plummet when you start talking and I stop. (I hope it goes without saying how difficult it is to keep eye contact with someone when you're checking your iPhone or looking at the person across the room you'd actually rather be talking to).
We need to empathize. The biggest mistake we make with this one is confusing empathy with sympathy. With empathy, we demonstrate a willingness to put ourselves in someone else's shoes. It's our attempt to understand them. When we sympathize we often look to comfort or offer assurances around someone else's situation. The problem with this confusion is we often skip empathy and fast forward to assuring someone everything is going to be OK before we have a clue of what everything actually is. Moreover, many times the other person doesn't need our assurances as much as they need to feel like we're trying to understand what they're going through. That's especially true of our kids.
We need to listen with an open mind. Oh how I struggle with this one. I can't tell you how many times I'm listening to my kids or my wife or my friends while at the same time judging what they're saying. Listener multi-tasking I suppose. But many times while they're talking I'm fast forwarding to the words I can speak to fix them. Sometimes I don't even fast forward, I just interrupt them to put me out of my listening misery. How wasteful is listening when you already know how the story needs to end? When I'm a good listener, though, the other person knows I'm more interested in hearing what they have to say than thinking about what they need to hear.
We need to nod and respond at just the right time. There's no better way to let someone know you're listening than shaking your head in agreement or saying I understand at just the right time. These are small gestures and statements that say I'm engaged in this conversation in a big way. (To the contrary, offering a nod or understanding at an inappropriate point in the conversation is a listening catastrophe). We just need to remember, most of the time when someone is talking to us what they want more than anything else is to know we are invested in the conversation.
If you're naturally a good listener who is motivated to understand others far more than you desire to have others understand you, you probably don't need to think about the "we need to" listening steps above. But if you're like me, and you too frequently feel like your words are more valuable than your ears, or your life is busy enough without accepting the added burden of listening to someone else talk, then you'll likely want to consider some of the steps above.
Maybe I'm making listening harder than it should be. I don't know. All I do know is I have a hard time being the listener I want to be without being intentional about it. Here's the other thing I've discovered in our boys. At six and eight years old they are already proficient talkers. They can tell me what they want and what they think I should want them to want with incredible fluency. When it comes to listening, though, they seem to have more of a struggle.
So tonight, I'm going to listen to them talk. I'll do so with a desire to be someone they'll always be comfortable talking to. I'll also do so with a mission to teach them to be better listeners, and unlock for them the secret to understanding the world around them.