Building Block #1: Listening
Girls and listening can be a tricky combination . . . at every age. Last summer, I was sitting by a pool when I heard two young girls talking loudly next to me. “I have an idea,” one yelled excitedly. “Let’s pretend like we’re dolphins and swim all of the way across the pool!” The other one quickly shouted back, “I have an idea! Let’s act like we’re fish and swim to the other side!” Both girls basically had the same idea. But bossiness, aka competition, won the day, and neither girl listened to the other. Bossiness makes reciprocity particularly challenging for elementary school aged girls. But they are capable. They are in middle and high school, as well . . . even when all evidence points to the contrary.
I sit with teenage girls every week in group counseling. Each girl has an opportunity to talk about what she’s struggling with at the time. I’m astounded in one of my groups, in particular, at their lack of listening skills. They’ve been friends/in group together for years. They have walked alongside each other through parents’ divorces, boyfriend breakups, bullying at school, and all manner of difficult things in the life of a teenager. Several of these girls happen to struggle socially and I believe would tell you, if they were sitting here, that they’re insecure. They also don’t listen. They basically sit and wait while others are talking for their turn to talk. They have trouble getting outside of themselves long enough to concentrate on someone else.
How many adults do we know who do the same thing? They talk over each other. They wait for their turn to talk. They’ve never learned how or don’t get outside of themselves long enough to really listen. Listening is where reciprocity starts. Someone can serve a ball all day long and, if we don’t use that same ball and return it, there is no tennis.
How do we teach kids to listen? First, we listen to them. We model listening skills when we get down on their level, look them in the eye, give them time to talk without rushing them, and respond in kind to what they have said. We let them know we hear them.
Second, we practice listening at home. We play games to grow their listening skills. We tell stories and we take turns at the table talking and listening. We have them say back to us what they’ve heard us communicate. With older kids, we ask questions to keep them attuned, such as “What are your thoughts about that?” without asking directly, “Were you listening to me?” (Direct questions often shut teenagers down. For more information, grab a copy of The Back Door to Your Teen’s Heart.)
When your daughter has friends over, watch how she relates. If she needs to work on her listening skills, use the tennis match analogy after the friend has gone home. In other words, don’t embarrass her in front of her friend. When the friend leaves, role-play the conversation with her and practice both sides. Have her respond to you in ways that show she was listening.
As a side note, we also believe that an obstacle to a child’s listening skills is sometimes a parent who talks a little too much. I sit with girls and their moms every day while the moms repeat the same sentence seven different times. I think they’re waiting for their daughters to say “Thanks, Mom. That was really helpful.” Honestly, they’ll say that when they’re 27. For now, they are listening even when they don’t look like it. Choose your words. Don’t lecture. We sabotage their listening skills when we talk at them for too long. Our ultimate goal is for kids to learn to think for themselves. Questions encourage more thought than lectures every time. Ask questions so she can learn to do the same.
Order a copy of Are My Kids on Track for more ways to build reciprocity in girls and boys!