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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 58 NOVEMBER 2003 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

practice

The hardest advice: Listen to your kids

Gerry Fewster

When I suggested that coercion, bribery, and intimidation are not the most effective ways for parents to respond to youth street culture [Kids aren’t the enemy (May 30)], I expected to hear from the reactionaries. Over the years I’ve learned to avoid tangling with the “get tough” brigade while turning a deaf ear to the wailings of the “family values” chorus. But, noting that I failed to offer any alternatives to the above prescriptions, one astute observer did raise an issue worthy of a response.

Actually, I rarely tell people what to do. I still remember the disasters of my advice-giving days when the takers would hold me responsible for whatever happened and the rebels would tell me to take a hike (parents, take note). Anyway, there are enough parenting cookbooks around for those who believe that someone out there has the answer. But, after 40 years of parental and professional experience, I know that there are no prescriptions that will realize adult fantasies of how kids should be.

Having watched the fads and fashions come and go, I can assure you that the purveyors of such illusions always have their bubbles burst by the next generation of experts. What none of them will tell you, however, is that any real change in our way of being with our children calls for nothing short of a revolution.

Say, for example, I tell parents they should listen to their kids. Most would gawk in disbelief and go off to find a real expert.

Yet, taken seriously, the simple act of listening to the uncensored story of another soul is to offer a rare and treasured gift. To be truly heard is to know that our thoughts and feelings, dreams and fears can be expressed and known; that who we really are has a place in this world. It is a gift of freedom.

Conversely, to simply listen to another person’s story, without judge-mentor agenda, is to understand the mystery of how, in our uniqueness, we are all inextricably connected. Beyond all the talk about genetic connections, family ties, personal loyalties, and cultural affiliations, the connection between two people who see and hear each other is the deepest bond of all. How simple.

Yet, however simple it seems, listening to another human being may be one of the most difficult tasks that we will ever embark upon. And, for most of us, listening to one of our children may border upon the impossible.

In the first place, we have to “be there”; our bodies, minds, and emotions fully attuned and dedicated to the task of listening to another soul. This isn’t easy. Since, in my experience, even the most highly trained psychotherapists are only partly “there” for their patients, why would parents want to train themselves to listen with such dedicated curiosity to the experience of a child? They know that what they hear will be “childish.”

By definition, childhood is a diminished state — interesting only as a preparation for adulthood but not to be taken seriously. So they sit there, feigning interest and thinking about more important adult matters, or waiting for the moment to jump in and teach about how things really are or should be. But, however well they play the role, the end result is always the same. The child isn’t heard and the parent tosses away the gift of being able to see the world once again through the eyes of a child (it really isn’t about Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald). And every time this happens, the potential bond is diminished.

It isn’t possible to listen to anyone if you don’t know where you end and they begin. Yet, when we feel close to others, we tend to forget that they are separate beings. We want to look after them, protect them, take away their bad feelings, teach them ways to be different, make them better. In other words, we stop listening to them and hear only our own dreams and fantasies. And, because we refuse to acknowledge their separateness, we blindly fall into the habit of holding them responsible for our experience. We tell them that they make us feel angry, sad, happy, and joyful and we heap our gratitude and disappointments upon them. As we look after them, so they must look after us.

This is an impossible burden for anyone. But children who carry the weight of their parents’ happiness can never be heard for who they really are, and, beneath the guilt, their anger and resentment will seep into all of their future relationships. As extensions of their parents, their own stories will never be told, unless a listener comes along who can earn their trust.

Such listeners must be able to see and suspend whatever agenda they might have. It takes courage to hear the “truth” of other lives, particularly when we are invested in them being a certain way or when we ask them to look after our feelings. We become selective in what we hear and judgemental in our responses so that others become equally selective in what they will share.
“ ... being able to listen implies an honest willingness to accept what is, rather than what might be or should be.”

Parental agendas are powerful. Even those who do recognize their kids as unique and separate beings generally remain invested in how they think and feel, what values they assimilate, what ambitions they will have, and so on. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these motives, being able to listen implies an honest willingness to accept what is, rather than what might be or should be. When parents select what they will hear and children select what they will show, there’s a conspiracy of denial. So, along with the anger of not being heard, the censored material is stuffed into a psychic backpack that may be carried for life. Now try one of those self-esteem prescriptions or call in the analyst.

Eventually, the child who carries the burden of parental happiness and self rejection will hit back — sometimes inwardly, sometimes outwardly, sometimes consciously, and sometimes without even knowing what it’s all about. We have many labels for this, including “adolescence.” Usually the attack is upon parental expectations and, by this time, the fears, fantasies, and vulnerabilities have become known and classified as targets. Now try bringing in the “get tough” brigade and the “family values” counsellors.

So, if I suggested that all you have to do is to listen to your kids, would you follow my advice?

This feature: Fewster, G. (2002). The hardest advice: Listen to your kids. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.15 No.4, pp. 17-19