The phenomenon of increasingly distracted parenting was already a problem before the pandemic. And now that screens are more enmeshed in our lives than ever before (and anxiety in both adults and children is on the rise), it’s a crucial time to sit back and reevaluate how we’re interacting within our families—and elsewhere. In her new book Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming The Lost Art of True Connection, Silicon Valley-based writer, user researcher, and toddler mama Ximena Vengoechea set out to create an essential guide for how we can become better listeners with all of the folks in our lives—from family and friends to colleagues and direct reports. Below, Ximena shares a handful of thoughtful, must-read tips on how to listen better to one’s kids, which will ultimately lead to greater connection.
Be humble and get curious. As parents, it can be easy to assume we know why our child is feeling a certain way—we have the benefit of life experience, after all. But when we treat our children as a mystery that’s already been solved, we give them little room to express themselves. That’s why it’s important to stay curious even when you think you know what’s driving a particular behavior or response in conversation; if we don’t, we can unintentionally close a conversation off. To do this, set your own experience aside to try to understand theirs more clearly. Think of your child as the teacher, with you as the student, to truly understand what they are going through.
Ask connecting questions. Stop me if this sounds familiar: You want to connect with your child and hear how they are feeling, but when you ask “Did you have a good time in school today?” or “Is your new art class fun?” you get only one-word answers in response (“yes,” “no,” “fine,” “sure,” “I guess,” etc.) In these moments, it can feel like the conversation has ended before it has even begun. Luckily there is a way forward: you can use encouraging questions to keep the conversation going and expansion prompts to take it deeper. Encouraging questions are open-ended, unbiased, and let your conversation partner—your kiddo—lead the way in their response. Instead of starting with “Is,” “Do,” or “Are,” which can inadvertently lead to narrow responses, they start with “How” or “What.” (“Why” works, too, but should be used sparingly, as it can sound accusatory to our ears.) These questions help kids share their feelings without constraints. If you’re still getting small answers, or if you’re starting to get richer responses and want to go deeper, you can gently nudge the conversation further with prompts like, “Tell me more about that,” or “What else?” or “Because…” Just make sure you give your child enough time and space to respond before jumping in with your response.
Play back what you are hearing to confirm your comprehension and validate your child’s experience. Sometimes our children’s feelings can come out in messy streams of consciousness, just like adults. In these moments, it can be helpful to hear those feelings reflected back to us; they show that the other person is listening and that they understand what we are experiencing. You can do the same for your children by summarizing what you are hearing at a high level (no need to play it back word for word) as a way of showing you hear and understand them. For example, saying “You’re upset because you wanted to go out and play today, and the rain ruined your plans” can help your little one feel affirmed in his or her experience, or allow them to correct you if necessary. Notice, too, that playing back what you’ve heard from your child is often sufficient; it doesn’t necessarily require further action, such as help, alternative solutions, a change of topic, etc. Sometimes, simply witnessing what our child is experiencing and playing it back to them for confirmation is enough.
Identify when you and your child are in the right headspace to go deep, and when you are not. If you’re trying to have a heart-to-heart or get to the bottom of a tricky situation with your child, make sure you both have what you need in order to have a productive conversation. That might mean snacks to prevent hanger from running the show, a good night’s sleep to help keep your wits about you, and ensuring no devices are in sight to reduce temptations to check that one email or clear that notification. It also might mean being in tune with whether you and your child are more clear headed in the mornings or in the afternoons, or feel more comfortable seated across the table from each other or more casually side-by-side on a walk together. Remember, though, that it’s important not just to optimize the conversation for your kiddo—you have to be in the right headspace, too, so do what you need to in support of that.
Remember to rest and recharge. At the end of the day, we parents are still human, and we can’t be on at all times. Though it can be tempting to push through and forge ahead on having that tough conversation even though we are exhausted, or on checking in on our little one’s feelings even though we are struggling to manage our own feelings, we need to practice self-care and make sure we are heard in conversation, too. This can mean taking breaks when you can, indulging in a guilty pleasure, and being honest about when you need a break. It’s okay to say so, and with the energy we gain back it can make future conversations that much stronger. Admitting we need a breather is also a great way to model the behavior for your child that listening to ourselves is as important as listening to others.
Ximena Vengoechea is a user researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., The Washington post, Newsweek, and Huffington Post. She is a contributor at Fast Company and The Muse, and writes Letters from Ximena, a newsletter on tech, culture, career, and creativity. She is best known for her project The Life Audit. An experienced manager, mentor, and researcher in the tech industry, she previously worked at Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
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