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Talk Less, Listen More

December 12, 2019

Many of us have it backwards. With our kids, we emphasize talking rather than listening. We believe that good parenting means explaining, reminding, correcting, admonishing, instructing — it’s no wonder a lot more words come out of our mouths than theirs. In time, all our gab tends to turn them off. By adolescence, many have tuned us out.

Better to listen than to speak. When we listen more than we talk to (or at) our children, they come to believe that we’re truly interested in their lives. They grow willing to seek us out and share what’s on their minds. So many of us worry that our kids are too private about what troubles them; we wonder how to get them to open up to us, especially about the important stuff. Offering them the regular experience of our non-judgmental listening is one way it’s done. 

In an August, 2011 presentation before the American Psychological Association, psychology professor Larry Rosen, Ph.D. said, “Communication is the crux of parenting. The ratio of parent listen to parent talk should be at least five-to-one. Talk one minute and listen for five.”i

Experts may not agree on the numbers, but there’s consensus that skillful listening is invaluable.

  • Show undivided attention. Don’t turn to your screen and check email, and maintain eye contact when the kids talk to you.
  • Help them to begin. “Tell me what was good/bad about your day.” And if they’ve offered you a morsel, try, “That’s interesting. Tell me more about it.”
  • Listen patiently. It can take kids longer to put their words together than we’d like. Hang in.
  • Refrain from commenting. Don’t cut them off before they’ve finished a sentence, or correct their thinking because it doesn’t match your own. Show curiosity, no matter what you hear. There’s always time later to question or challenge an idea.
  • Listen for feelings and deliver empathy. The way a child says something — tone of voice, body posture, facial expressions — can tell you plenty. When you detect feelings, ask about them. “I sense you’re upset. Can you tell me about it?” “You seem frustrated with your teacher, is that it?” (See Are You Okay?)

If your children know you to be a good listener, they’ll approach you more often to share a problem when something’s troubling them, or just to enjoy the pleasure of your company. Imagine that!

Keep the 5:1 ratio in mind.ii

References & Citations

i “Social networking’s good and bad impacts on kids.” APA Press Release, August 6, 2011.

ii An earlier version of this Tip appeared in October, 2011.