The best advice? Listen

While TALKING with my eight-year-old son the other day, I suddenly realized he didn't want - or need - my advice or wisdom at that particular moment.

Of course, he will want these things someday. But what he really needed at that moment was for me to listen.

While lying on his bed in the evening, we had been discussing some of the funnier events of the day. Laughing at first, he became serious as he described the behaviors of one of the other boys on the recess playground.

"He is always stealing our ball or forcing himself into our game. Nobody likes him, and when he loses he throws the ball at us," Mike said.

Drawing on my own childhood memories, I started to give my son some "how to deal with difficult people" advice.

Within a few seconds, I could see him tuning out. I stopped my lecture, and asked, "What you and your friends do when this happens?" He tuned right back in and started talking again.

As he talked, I started listening - prompting for some details, raising my eyebrows, nodding, even giving him an occasional "I see."

Listening, really deep listening, is not an easy thing for me to do in my fatherly role. It takes time, patience, and letting go of my own ideas.

Not to mention my own schedule.

When I arrive home from work looking for a quiet escape, my two boys often have other ideas. "First one to touch Dad is the winner," says one. They run at me and overwhelm me with leaps and yells.

My youngest says, "Dad, we saw a real cow heart at school today."

I would like to say, "Wow, Seiji, that's great!" and head for the bedroom. Instead I say "Come on, let's sit down. Tell me about it."

Children, especially very young ones, are unlikely to hold their thoughts until later. My son will share with enthusiasm when he is ready to share, but if I ask him a half hour later about the cow heart, there won't be much to say.

So I drop my briefcase as well as the baggage inside my head, and head for the couch.

As we sit down, I try to maintain eye contact and relax. I take a moment to look over my child from head to toe. I look at his eyes, his nose, the way he is standing and the way he is moving. I listen to the words as well as the way the words sound.

"What did it look like?" I ask. He begins to speak, and I imagine that he is a symphony and I don't want to miss a single note.

It is easy for adults to have instant advice for nearly every situation our children may encounter. When we look back on our youth and early adulthood we remember our mistakes, and all of the lessons that we learned.

These life experiences gave us wisdom to share with our children. But by listening I am trying to tell him, "I understand you."

By encouraging my sons to approach me over and over again, I can let them know that I am really there for them. Listening deeply means forgetting about myself for a moment.

Of course, there will come a time when my children will want some wisdom. When they are a pre-teen or teenager, they will face more challenging dilemmas and they will be making more crucial life decisions.

There will come a time when they will start a conversation, not simply to be listened to, but so they may be advised.

Who will they choose to get advice from? Without a doubt, they will pick someone who really understands them.

They may approach a friend, a teacher, a neighbor, or a grandparent. Or, if I have taken the time to listen over the years, I might be able to finally share some of that wisdom I have accumulated.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

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