Once upon a time, I was a “fixer.” When my kids had a problem, I would make suggestions until they agreed, and then I would feel very satisfied that they had benefited from my vast experience.

But as they got older, they grew less willing to listen and one day, I had an epiphany: They didn’t want to be fixed. They wanted to be heard.

The irony here is, I am a counselor and a coach. But when it comes to my family, I sometimes forget to use my skills. When I have an emotional attachment to the outcome — when I want my boys to make the RIGHT choice (“right” being limited to my point of view) — I am tempted to jump from “listener” to “fixer.” And when I’m being that parent, some not-so-good things happen, despite my best intentions.

Here’s why:

What parent/child both need

  1. Kids need to feel powerful, and one way to give them power is to allow them to have a voice. A 14-year-old client recently told me: “I know my parents can’t give me everything I want, but I’m not a little girl anymore. If they really want to act in my best interest, they should at least ask me what I think and listen to what I have to say!”
  2. We need a more accurate perspective of what our kids think and where they’re coming from. So many times, I have been sure I knew what my kids were thinking, and then when they actually told me, I wasn’t even close to being right. We may need to make an unpopular decision, or we may need to give kids the opportunity to try something we think might be a mistake, so they can learn from it. We can’t do any of these effectively if we don’t know what they’re thinking and feeling.
  3. We are more likely to get respect from our kids when they believe we sincerely care about what they have to say. Do you respect someone who makes decisions about you and never bothers to ask for your input? Yeah, me neither.

How to REALLY listen

Just listening can be challenging, so here are basic guidelines:

  • Visualize yourself pinching your lips shut, and keep them that way.
  • When it seems like your child is done talking, say something like, “Is there anything else?” or “Could you tell me what you mean by that?” or “Could you give me an example?”

(The goal is to draw them out, until we have as close to a complete picture as they’re willing to give us.)

  • Wrap up the conversation with something like, “Thanks for telling me that. It really helps me to know what’s going on for you.”
  • Add an acknowledgment or appreciation, like
    “I really notice how important ____ is for you.” Or, “I really want to acknowledge you for considering _____.”

Problem-solving questions

There are times when listening is all that is needed. And there are times when listening becomes a jumping-off point for problem-solving. Kids will be more willing to step into problem-solving if they feel they have been heard. Problem-solving should also include listening, but our questions can be more direct:

  • What is your picture of what is going on regarding…?
  • What’s your plan for …?
  • What do you think would be some benefits/problems for you if you…?
  • What do you see as some solutions to this problem that would be respectful to all concerned?
  • Would you be willing to consider a couple of ideas I have?

If they say yes, offer your ideas with no emotional attachment to whether or not they use them. If they say no, let it go and move on.

If we want to raise independent thinkers who can make decisions and learn from them, we need to let kids practice speaking their mind respectfully while we model respectful listening.

Chances are they will give back to us what we model for them. When we connect with and get each other, we become partners instead of fixers.