01/23/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Why Don't You Listen?

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Written by Rosemary Strembicki

I must have said it thousands of times as my girls were growing up: "I said no, why don't you listen?" "I said wait, why don't you listen?" "I said come here, why don't you listen?" No matter what the context, it's a common refrain for parents.

Then one day, I remembered a conversation I had with my dad back when I was a young adult. He told me, "Why do you have to always do it your way, why can't you listen to me and learn from my mistakes?" And I just wanted to shout back, "Why can't you listen to ME, don't you know who I am?" That was my first lesson in learning that it might be more helpful to our children to talk less and listen more.

Children communicate with us in all kinds of ways from the minute they're born. I've always been amazed by the parents who can tell what their newborns need from their cries and bond with them immediately. What a gift for those children. Others struggle to recognize their child's "voice" and are constantly frustrated by the experiences of early parenting. So much of communication with an infant is instinctual, and some of us never master it.

But as our children get older, even before they can speak, we can learn so much from their behavior. Why don't we trust children enough to know what they need?

As the weather got colder this fall my grandson would refuse to wear his mittens much to his mother's chagrin. But once the temperatures hit zero and he experienced the snow he wouldn't head outside without them. My granddaughter loves to bask in the freedom of being naked while her mother chases her around in the morning trying to get her dressed. But when the temperature in their house dropped to the low sixties she asked for her slippers and gradually consented to a hooded sweater. Do our fears and concerns to do the right thing get in the way of hearing our children?

As our children get older the stakes get higher. They begin to face circumstances and are confronted with risks that can scar them for life. Do they know when they have the maturity to take on those challenges? And are we really protecting them by not letting them try? There's no easy answer. Parenting is a process, there are no guarantees and we make mistakes along the way. How can we insure our children's safety? We can't. But we can become partners with them in discovering where their limitations lie. We can only do that by watching, listening and providing feedback.

It's so easy to respond with a quick "no" when they come to us with an idea or a request that we've never considered or may have some objection to. A long conversation is not always something we want to get into at that particular time, and they always seem to come to us at those times. But a pause and, "We'll talk about it later", can give us the time and distance to take a breath and discuss their point of view. Sometimes they can help us see in new and different ways that can contribute to our own growth. Our world is constantly changing and the newest generation is experiencing it very differently than we did. They can teach us a lot, if we listen.

Yes, we do have a lot to teach our children and we usually know what's best for them, but not always. When do we trust them to take the lead? It'll be different for each child in each family. Our job is to know them well enough to stand back when they're ready.

My dad had a small, framed sign on his desk at work that only he could see when he was talking to his staff. It was an illustration of the word "listen." He knew the importance of letting people express themselves and feel heard. As a parent, his fears for his loved ones sometimes got in the way of his listening skills, but in the process, he taught me some very valuable lessons.

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