Most of us have been told that love conquers all. Parents think that these three little words, “I love you,” are the most important ones, but there are three other words that have greater impact. These three little words have the potential to show children that their parents actually love them. They have the capacity to prove to kids that their parents are interested about them as people. Their use models how to be in every relationship in a child’s life. Using them also gives parents something they say want – entrance to their child world. What are they?
“Tell me more.”
Yes, these three little words have immense power. They show the other person that the listener really cares about their experience. They have the capacity to defuse angry situations. When a listener turns to them first, even when emotions are high, the need to defend or deflect disappears. As my mentor, Peter Pearson says, they will help people learn to be “curious not furious,” and that skill enriches every relationship.
Many parents experience such a desire to protect their children that when their child complains about someone or expresses certain emotions, they jump in with an explanation or try to offer a quick fix. For example, a child comes home from school and complains that no one wants to play with him. The parent trying to protect says things like “Oh, that’s okay, buddy, don’t be sad. I love you.” Or they might offer, “You don’t need those kids, just ignore them!” These well-meaning statements teach kids that their deeper feelings will upset mom or dad. They do not learn to be resilient, they learn to downplay what they feel and experience.
Other times parents may wish for their kids to quickly do as they are told or they get irritated when their child says she doesn’t want to buckle her seat belt. A power struggle can get set up and the parent resorts to dismissing their child’s statement as a childish pronouncement. The parent may feel they are being manipulated and feel frustrated that their child will not immediately comply.
But what if you took a deep breath and prepared yourself to actually listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings? After “No one wants to play with me,” your child hears, “That sounds tough. Tell me more.” The first time you do this your child might stare at you and wonder where their parent went, but each time you do this your child learns that he or she can trust you with their inner world. Your child learns how to express their feelings with words. He learns how to struggle with tough emotions and to have the experience that they don’t last forever. Recapping what your child has said with empathy lets them know you are really listening and encourages them to generate their own solutions.
For the oppositional child, hearing a curious response can defuse a tantrum or escalation. An acquaintance recently told me of how his daughter refused to buckle her seat belt and how he ended up waiting outside the car for 15 minutes before she finally buckled up. During that time he kept telling her that they wouldn’t leave until she buckled up and she steadfastly refused to comply. I suggested that he might inquire next time about why she didn’t want to do as ask, since usually she was willing to do so. It turns out that she was feeling a bit sick that day and wanted to be taken care of a little. If he had asked he would have been able to respond with more empathy and even engaged his daughter to buckle up the top while he did the bottom ones. That 15-minute wait and the continued power struggle could have been avoided.
Okay, kids are not going to be this easy every time, but by slowing down and asking in an open and curious way what is going on, parents are more likely to know their children better and to becoming closer. This approach will pay dividends for the parent-child relationship when kids reach adolescence because kids will feel the can tell the truth because their parents will listen first. When kids begin forming their own friendships and relationships, they will have great skills for being close with others.
Give those three little words a try today!