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Listen up: The secret ingredient that turns any time into quality time

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We’ve all heard that it’s not the amount of time we spend with our kids that matters, but rather the quality of that time. That’s a comforting concept to all the working (aka busy, exhausted, overwhelmed) parents out there that struggle to find even slivers of time to bring their families together. But what exactly is quality time and how does it differ from regular, everyday time?

Many parents think they need to do something extraordinary, or at least out of the ordinary, to create quality time. We schedule, plan, shop and stress to create a picturesque moment. But how many of those moments turn out to be as fun in real life as they appear on Facebook? Do they make us feel closer to our kids, and more importantly, make our kids feel closer to us?

When we overthink our time, our efforts often backfire, and we’re left feeling frustrated and disappointed. It’s not to say that grand gestures cannot create amazing quality time, they can, but it does not guarantee it. So what does? One thing, listening.

In a 2010 national survey of 15-year-olds, 80% said they wished their parents would listen to them more. Comparatively, less than 40% said they wanted special privileges. When parents listen, really listen, their children feel understood, respected, valued and loved. Now, any time spent creating those feelings is quality.

Although most parents think they're listening, more often than not, they are reacting instead. So, how do you know if you’re listening in a way that makes your child feel heard? Here are a few guidelines.

How to LISTEN UP:

  • L: Lean in. Make it clear to your child that you’re interested and giving him your undivided attention. This means setting down your phone, iPad, the mail, the pen or anything else that may distract you. Then, turn your body and eyes towards him.
  • I: Identify emotions. You can learn so much more about your child and what she’s saying if you pay attention to her feelings as well. Is she excited? Afraid? Angry? Hurt?
  • S: Seek understanding. In order to understand, you must be silent. Stay focused on what your child is saying and resist the temptation to interrupt with your own stories and thoughts. Interrupting frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message. If you struggle with staying quiet, try to build your listening stamina by setting goals for yourself (e.g. don’t speak for at least one minute into the conversation).
  • T: Test your understanding. Repeat back what you heard your child say in the form of a question to make sure nothing got lost in translation. Lightly pepper the conversation with clarifying questions to encourage your child to continue talking and confirm that you are truly listening with interest.
  • E: Empathize. A bad hair day, a snub by a friend, or a mean teacher may seem trivial to you, but recognize that they may matter deeply to your teen. Try to relate to how your child is feeling about something without minimizing its importance. A simple, “Wow, that must have hurt your feelings,” or “I cannot imagine how angry that made you,” is all you need.
  • N: Neutralize your response. If you want your child to feel comfortable and safe talking to you, you need to reassure him that he can open up to you without fear of being judged or lectured. If in doubt, just stay quite and keep listening.
  • UP: Uplifting note. End the conversation on an uplifting note. Thank her for sharing her thoughts with you. Let her know how much you appreciated her openness and enjoyed the time you spent together. And, most importantly, let her know that you are always willing to listen.

The good news is, when we listen to our kids, we can turn even the most mundane moments into a meaningful ones. And there never seems to be a shortage of mundane tasks that need to be done. For example:

  • When you’re driving your daughter to practice, ask her what she enjoys most about being on the team. Then listen.
  • When you’re cooking dinner or loading the dishwasher, ask your son about the latest video game he’s obsessed with. Then listen.

You get the idea. Thanks for listening.

For more ideas, check out Conversation fuel: 400+ clever questions to spark small talk with your kids.

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