Listening to Children with Head and Heart

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Many sounds in our world compete for our attention. As parents, life can become so hectic that we fail to truly listen to others, especially those closest to us--such as our children. The words of an anonymous author teach a profound lesson about listening:

A wise, old owl sat on an oak
The more he saw, the less he spoke. 
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that bird?

The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium said that we have been given one mouth and two ears that we might hear more and talk less.

Careful listening is one of the best ways parents can influence their children for good. It is one of God's primary ways of influencing us. He has said, "Be still, and know that I am God." He listens and responds to every heartfelt prayer.

Head and heart listening requires that we attend to more than mere words. To understand the full meaning of what a child is saying to us, we have to "listen" to tone, inflection, feelings, and body language. By truly listening, we are saying to our children: "You are a person of worth. I love you, respect you, and want to understand you."

Unfortunately, we are often so eager to get our own point across that we interrupt our children with our own ideas and don't pay enough attention to their thoughts and feelings.

For example, in the movie "Are You Listening," a father is awakened in the middle of the night by loud music. He arises angrily and heads downstairs to find his teenaged son slumped on the couch, oblivious to the music's volume. The father steps over to the stereo and switches it off. He then begins a tirade, rebuking his son for being up too late, listening to foul music, putting himself at risk for bad grades and impaired hearing, and every other mini-lecture he can come up with. The son repeatedly tries to explain himself, but his father interrupts and overpowers him each time.

How often as parents do we make a similar mistake?

The goal of listening is to hear, understand, and accept the other person's feelings and views. Parents need to set aside their lectures and opinions and strive to truly understand their children's point of view. No one can understand at the same time they're giving advice.

Anytime we want to truly grasp our child's thoughts and feelings, we have to give up lecturing ("What you need to do is . . ."), talking about our own experiences ("That same thing happened to me when I was a kid"), and playing down our child's concern ("Everyone feels that way once in a while").

Practical Strategies

Strategies for listening to your children with both your head and your heart include:

  • Give your children your full attention. Put aside lectures, reactions, feelings, perceptions, and judgments. Eliminate distractions such as the newspaper, TV or radio. Put yourself in your child's shoes and try with all your heart to see the world through his or her eyes. The attitude and spirit you adopt is probably the most important aspect of listening. You can go through the outward motions of listening but not really be hearing anything if you don't have the attitude and spirit of true listening.

    Physically, you can give your child full attention by turning and leaning toward him or her to show involvement and concern. You can also watch carefully his or her eyes, where emotions are often communicated.

  • Acknowledge your child's feelings. Sometimes we try to deny our children's feelings ("You don't really hate school"), give advice, judge, and accuse. We try to get them to see what we see or feel the way we do, and in the process, we prevent them from fully understanding their own experience. As psychologist Haim Ginnott said, "Many people have been educated out of knowing what their feelings are."1 Acknowledge and respect your child's feelings and views.

    For example, suppose your child returns from school and says, "My teacher yelled at me and everybody laughed!" It would be easy to miss the feelings behind this statement and instead ask, "What did you do to make your teacher so upset?" A better response might be: "That must have been embarrassing for you," or "It can hurt when people laugh at us." After acknowledging feelings, you can help your child come up with solutions to avoid the same problem in the future.

    Some parents think that if they show understanding, their children will think they're condoning bad behavior. But showing understanding doesn't mean you agree with their behavior. Rather, it shows you care about their feelings. Children need to feel they are understood before any advice or correction can sink in. The following exchange between a father and daughter, given in Haim Ginnott's book, Between Parent and Child, shows a father truly listening to his daughter and understanding her feelings:1

    Daughter: My turtle is dead. He was alive this morning.
    Father: Oh no. What a shock! 
    Daughter: (Tears in her eyes) He was my friend.
    Father: To lose a friend can hurt. 
    Daughter: I taught him to do tricks.
    Father: You two had fun together. 
    Daughter: I fed him every day. . . . 
    Father: You really cared about that turtle.

  • Invite more discussion. Sometimes acknowledging a child with a sincere "Oh . . . hmmm. . . I see" is enough to invite more discussion. When coupled with a caring attitude, these simple sounds invite children to explore their own thoughts and feelings, and, if they're trying to solve a problem, possibly come up with their own solutions.

  • Show understanding by paraphrasing. Paraphrasing means to restate or reflect what another person has said--but without parroting it word for word. Paraphrasing can be especially useful when you're trying to help someone get to the heart of a problem.

    Remember the example of the father who blasted his son? In the movie, this same scenario occurs a second time, but this time the father reacts differently. As he enters the room where his son is listening to blaring music, the father calms himself, then notices a disturbed look on his son's face. Instead of launching into a lecture, he turns the stereo off and asks his son, "What's going on?" At first the son hedges, "Dad, you don't want to hear this." But his father persists, and the son ends up pouring out feelings and fears common to young men. As the father truly listens, he understands, and he's able to help point his son in the right direction in a way that lectures and commands can never accomplish.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham YoungUniversity.Portions adapted from Dr. Duncan's article, Communication: Building a Strong Bridge Between You and Your Children , published by Montana State University Extension Service.


  1. Ginnott, H. (1969). Between parent and child. New York: Avon.
  2. Goddard, H. W. (1994). Being understanding: A key to developing healthy children. Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
  3. Burr, W. R., Yorgason, B. G., & Baker, T. R. (1982). Marriage and family stewardships. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.