It's important to take the time to listen to our children
I just wasn't in the mood for one of those long, tortured, and ultimately fruitless discussions with my then 8-year-old about the difference between fantasy and reality. It had been a long day and I was dead tired.
I knew it wasn't my daughter's fault that the babysitter had let her watch part of a movie about some giant alligator that terrorizes a small town up in the Northwoods. I wasn't even all that ticked off at the babysitter -- she had shut off the TV as soon as she realized what the movie was about.
And I also knew that a "good" parent would patiently listen to all his child's questions and concerns and offer just the right mix of empathy and reality. But I just couldn't pull it off. So instead I reverted to something like, "it was just a movie, sweetheart; there are no giant alligators; just don't watch it again." End of discussion. Turn up the car radio.
"Dad," my little girl responded with exaggerated patience, "I know that. I just wondered whether it was alligators or crocodiles that had long snouts."
You know, sometimes we parents forget to listen. We get so used to our children's chatter that we don't realize that they are growing, developing, maturing humans who are going to know a bit more, understand a bit more, and be a bit wiser each and every day.
We forget that their days -- what they do, who they do it with -- impact them just like they impact us. In fact, just when we're sure we know exactly what's going on in their little heads, when we know what they're going to say before they even say it, is when our kids will surprise us the most with some new or unexpected thought or observation.
It's when we don't listen that we wind up answering questions that weren't asked, making assumptions that don't fit, offering advice that wasn't solicited, setting limits that don't need to be set, or lecturing and scolding when no transgressions were committed.
It's when we don't listen that our interactions with our children wind up long, tortured, and fruitless.
Of course, listening to our children does sometimes involve asking a few questions. Not accusing or shaming or intrusive questions, however, but exploring questions. What do they mean? What is it they really want?
And we may have to think about what they are saying a bit before we understand what it is they need in response.
Listening and carefully questioning can take time and energy. Both seem in short supply in a lot of parents' lives today. It's not so much that we don't want to tune in to our kids, it's just that we are so worn out we tune out even the people most important to us.
The problem is that when we fail to hear and understand our children, we wind up spending even more time and using up even more energy than we need to. And in sorting out the mess our shortcut parenting makes, we get more tired and more frustrated, as do our kids.
It would have taken about five seconds and one or two words to answer my daughter's real question. Then she would have happily returned to the coloring she'd brought along. She needed some down time just as much as I did.
Too bad her Dad talks so much. Maybe next time he'll listen more.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling with offices in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available online.