Hindsight is usually 20/20.
While I have a lot to continue learning about being a parent, I want to share what I feel is one of the most important things I have learned to date.
I want to preface this by saying: I am by no means an expert, a psychologist, or some kind of tiny human whisperer. I’m just a mom of 12 and 14-year-old sons, a mom who has managed to make it this far, and perhaps to learn a few things along the way.
I am by no means perfect. I have made, and will surely continue to make, my fair share of parenting mistakes. I just hope this isn’t one.
From the time my children were coherently speaking, I have tried to simply listen, mindfully listen. When they were small but out of cribs, my sons shared a room in a bunk bed. For whatever reason, they have never been good sleepers. Every night, either my husband or I would sit with them until they fell asleep—sometimes this felt like hours, and oftentimes it was grueling at the end of a long day.
My older son slept in the top bunk and my younger son in the bottom. They had matching blue comforters, and star night lights affixed to the midnight blue wall that looked like the night sky. They both slept with their favorite stuffed animals. I would sit in the same wooden glider on the cream cushions where I had spent hours rocking and nursing them as newborns. The room would be dark—save the warm dull light cast from night lights and the harsher streetlights that crept in through the blinds.
I don’t actually know when or how it started, but it became routine that as they settled down, they would start to talk to me—it was probably a delay tactic on their part to avoid the dreaded sleep time. It was little-kid conversations about what happened at daycare that day or the bus to kindergarten. Benign. “So and so got in trouble at school,” or “I got a star today.”
Sometimes, though, we had real conversations—like how babies were really made (no, they are not pooped out, even though so-and-so’s brother on the bus to school said that they are)—and mom has a scar on her tummy from where you were born. Truthfully, I always try to be as appropriate, honest, and real with my sons as possible. I said no more or no less than what they asked or needed to know, but satisfied the questions in such a way that they can grow into the full truth.
The conversations and durations varied by the day, but to each of them, I gave the same attention; some days we all talked, and other days I simply listened. Some days they had many questions, and others there were none.
Now, anyone who has listened to their child explaining their Minecraft build, the YouTube video star of the day, or any comparable child chatter can tell you it’s not always easy to stay focused. But I found that the more I welcomed the conversations and tried to stay engaged, the more they also wanted to talk to me about the important topics. They would talk about things that were troubling them or upsetting them, things that they needed guidance to navigate through.
As my boys have grown and matured, the conversations have also evolved. They discuss school stressors or coming into their adolescence. I have also learned about their interests and developing ideas on politics, and the social dilemmas of today that they will eventually inherit.
Learning these things about my children gives me insights into their developing morals, their strengths, who they are at their core, and who they are becoming. Understanding what interests them helps me as a parent guide them into adulthood, and helps me know where I need to be doing a better job.
We also have come to a standing arrangement. If there is a problem, or something weighing on them they want to talk about, they simply need to come to me and say, “Mom, I need to talk to you in private, please.”
They know if they utter those words, I will stop what I am doing and we will find a place to talk.
Insider tip—it’s also code for me, that no matter what they are about to tell me, to be open and listen before reacting.
Maybe it’s a struggle with their brother, a teacher, a friend, or even something I have done or said that’s upset them. Maybe it’s a physical concern—they are both fully in the throes of puberty, which of course brings its own challenges. Maybe something’s been lost or broken; really, there are endless scenarios.
What is important, though, is when those nine words are spoken, my job is to listen and not knee-jerk react or harshly judge.
There’s no anger or yelling, whatever it is—we sit and will talk through. That’s not to say I won’t express disappointment or tell them if they have done something wrong. It simply means that I am calm, open, and there to guide them through whatever the moment calls for.
My mother told me many years ago that little kids have little problems, big kids have big problems, and adult kids have adult problems.
We do not simply wake up one day with the skills needed to combat all the “life things.” At 43 years old, I still need my mom, and I call her on the regular for a bit of advice or guidance.
The children of the world are facing harder and bigger challenges by the day. They need safe places to learn how to cope and manage, how to constructively express their feelings and needs, and they need guidance on developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
As parents and guardians, we need to help our children, and I fully believe that it starts with simply listening. If we are present for the little things, it builds the trust for the bigger things and the critical things, and if I’m honestly speaking, I think if we listen, we also will learn things ourselves. My kids teach me something new almost every day.
I hope that in reading this, I can inspire you to take that extra five minutes to listen. Put down your phone or turn the TV off. Appreciate what your kids are saying, even if you don’t fully understand all of it.
I truly believe when they feel safe and feel that their voice matters, with your help, they will master the art of using it later.