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Single-Parenting Skill: Really Listening to Your Children

Each of your children is a one-of-a-kind person. Don't make the mistake of lumping them into a one-size-fits-all relationship. You need to handle each child's idiosyncrasies a little differently. Your youngest daughter may burst into tears when you casually reprimand her for not cleaning her room, but your older daughter may respond in good humor with, "Hey, Dad, chill out. I'll have my room ready for inspection in 30 minutes, and you'll be sooo proud of me!" The sooner you catch on to the differences in your children's personalities, the better your relationships will be, especially as you learn the importance of really listening to your children and practicing positive talk.

Listening to your child is one of the greatest ways you can demonstrate your love. (We're talking about actively listening here, not uncomprehendingly nodding and grunting as you stuff their wriggling feet into their boots. Yes, we know that parental sanity does call for the use of mental autopilot at times — but not all the time.) Why is listening so important? Because it's the only way you can find out what your child is thinking, how he might be hurting, and what makes him angry. How can you help him if you don't know what's on his mind?

Wouldn't it be a perfect world if your kids always told you what's bothering them, and you could always be there for them with a solution? Well, the world isn't perfect, but you can still try as hard as possible to get inside your kids' heads.

If you want to have a heart-to-heart chat with your child and get him talking, wait until bedtime. Dim the light and sit on the edge of his bed. After he starts talking, he'll want to keep you there. Spending time with you in this cozy setting is an easy, relaxed way for your child to share his thoughts and feelings.

If you get your child to open up, here's a sampling of what you may hear:

  • "Why do you promise me that Dad will pick me up when you know he won't show?"
  • "I think it's totally stupid to have to share a bedroom with Trisha! How many boys my age have to share a bedroom with their sister?"
  • "Why can't we go fishing anymore? When Mom lived with us, we used to go down to the canal and catch catfish all the time."

To be a good listener, you need to figure out what your child is really saying. Try this four-step process:

1. Restate the problem.

2. Ask if you correctly understand the problem.

3. Ask your child for her solution to the problem.

4. Offer your own solution, if there is one.

If you can't come up with a solution on the spot, tell your child that you should both think about the problem and talk it over later. Assure your child that you will work it out.

While you go through these steps, keep a few other things in mind:

  • Look your child in the eye.
  • Show genuine concern.
  • Never pass off the problem as being insignificant.

In the following bullets, take a look at each of the issues from the earlier sample questions and the suggestions for possible solutions.

  • Dad doesn't show up as promised.

Restate the complaint: "You're upset with me because I promise you that Dad will pick you up, and when he doesn't, you're angry because you think I lied to you, is this correct?"

Offer a solution: "When I tell you that Dad is coming to pick you up, I'm passing on his promise to you, but I'm so sorry he lets you down. I'm also sorry I make promises that aren't kept because I don't like broken promises any more than you do. Let's talk to Dad about this the next time we see him. We'll let him know how he disappoints you when he doesn't do what he promises."

  • Junior has to share a bedroom with his sister.

Restate the complaint: "You feel insulted because you have to share a bedroom with your sister, which means you don't have private space of your own, is that it?"

Offer a solution: "I'm sorry you have to share a bedroom with Trisha. I know that's not cool at all. We can't move to a larger apartment for a while, but maybe we can figure something out. What if we divide the room in half by taking the tall bookcase in the living room and making it into a room divider? We could also move your dresser so it seems like a little wall when you first walk in. Would that help?"

  • Fishing time with Mom has dramatically diminished.

Restate the complaint: "You miss doing things with your Mom, right?"

Offer a solution: "Listen, I'm a heck of a fisherman. Let's grab the fishing gear and catch some catfish next Sunday, how does that sound? We'll bring the portable barbecue, and we can cook a few of the fish on the spot, just like you and Mom used to do. And I'll make the beans that you like to bring along."

If carving out some quiet time to listen to each of your kids each day is difficult, here's an idea: Make an appointment with each child for a private chat, and don't let anything interfere with this appointment. You may have to take the phone off the hook, but these daily appointments will build relationships.

A positive attitude, as well as positive talk, is uplifting and healing — not only mentally, but emotionally and physically. Here are a few upbeat ways to bring positive talk into your home:

  • Try hard to lighten up a little: Look for the humor in your single-parent routine.
  • Practice smiling: A smile can heal and lift everyone's heart, including your own.
  • Think up positive talk ahead of time: At the end of the day, be ready to praise your daughter for getting an A on her science test and compliment your son for helping out with household chores.

And remember that the length of time you meet with each child isn't the important part. The quality of your time together and how well you listen is what really counts.

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