The windows turn into mirrors, black with night, reflecting more than darkness outside. As I turn to respond to my daughter, I see my face frowning with irritation. My body wrenches. Secret thoughts insist, “Isn’t it bedtime already?”
Not quite yet. Teeth are brushed. Jammies are on. Clothes are picked out. But my children need to talk. They need to unload the moments of unrest stifled by the noise of classmates, homework, and sports commitments. My daughter needs to release the hidden pain caused by friends turning their back on her. My son needs to work through disappointment on a less than par grade. They all need to confess a conversation that was simply other. They need to process life.
Why am I surprised? Don’t I fall into the same pattern with my husband? As soon as we head for bed, my chatter turns on full speed. We play our bumper dance shuffle around the bathroom, my mouth doesn’t shush for a moment. In full throttle, I don’t even pause to allow the spinning toothbrush to do it’s work, and the mirror testifies to my disregard each morning. But I have to get it out. I have to release the moments of my day — the joys, pains, successes, failures, worries, fears, hopes, and unrealized dreams — or else I won’t be able to settle myself into a quiet slumber. My mind will race and heart will pound in a tornado of unrest.
I know. Instead of keeping my husband ducking for cover from my spit-flying toothpaste, I ought to give my heart to the Lord. But I’m reduced to prayer only when my husband’s snore drowns me out. At that point, I have no other option but to pray until the sweet presence of God ushers my worry-filled soul to sleep.
Considering my own bedtime routine, should I be surprised that my children have developed a similar habit of processing life? Even though their daddy is available and willing to listen, I am always the one they come to! Why won’t they go to their dad, when he is sitting right there? Is my Heavenly Father wondering the same thing about me, too?
Our longing to share our experiences with others is valid. God designed us to be in relationship. He is a relational God. Our Heavenly Father is intimately connected with His Son, Jesus. The Holy Spirit is in relationship with Christ and God. The Trinity is in relationship with mankind, through faith in Jesus as Lord. A man is connected in an intimate, sacred relationship with a woman through marriage, modeled after Adam being in relationship with Eve. Children are unavoidably in relationship with their parents. The family of God is in relationship with one another, with each member contributing their gifts and talents to the benefit of the whole body.
These relationships are sustained and nurtured through conversation and experiences. Our relationship with God involves Him speaking to us through the Word, creation, and the working of the Holy Spirit. We speak to Him through prayer, hymns of worship, words of praise. We hear God. He hears us. And our relationship with Him grows.
Listening validates the stories of our lives and binds us to one another, forming a connection with others and cultivating intimacy in our relationships. As children mature into their teen years, their need to be heard grows exponentially. If parents shut them down with a barrage of “not nows, maybe laters, and enough alreadys,” they will turn elsewhere to be heard. A bond will grow with their peers that should have been formed with their parents. All because they want to be heard. All because mom and dad are too busy or tired to listen.
Children will inevitably want to talk on their terms and in their timing, which means parents must leave a margin and flexibility in their schedules to give the precious gift of being heard. It takes intentionality to cultivate the art of listening:
- be attentive: make eye contact, lean into their stories, respond with appropriate emotion
80/20 rule: let them talk 80% of the conversation and spend your 20% asking thoughtful questions to uncover attitudes, emotions, fears, obstacles, dreams
- request permission: remember that they want to be heard, not lectured, so ask permission to give advice and share personal stories
- skip screen time: avoid email, Facebook, and TV until the children are in bed; if the children want to talk “after hours,” turn off the screen and give them your full attention
- create bedtime margins: establish a routine that leaves room for talking; if an older child really likes to chat at bedtime, move up their “tuck-in” time with a promise to climb into bed with them for a cuddle and conversation
- look behind the scenes: a meltdown may uncover a bigger issue, so listen for what is not said while addressing the current situation
- pray it forward: listening does not require fixing a child’s problem, but it does empower parents to pray, both with them and for them; consider every time of listening as a prayer request from your child and turn it over to the Lord
The exchange of feelings, experiences, and concerns lays a networked grid of connectedness. It is a gift the Lord gives us when He listens to our prayers. It is a gift a spouse gives to their beloved. It is a gift parents give their children as they listen to their hearts unfold, developing in them the habit of openness that will enable a natural, intimate relationship with the Lord as they mature into adulthood.
That’s it. Last night was my last bumper dance toothpaste flying full throttle chattering shuffle. From now on I’m going first to the One who listens beyond the snore, as I pray for Him to give me the grace to cultivate the art of listening and gift of being heard in my family.
How about you?