Believe it or not the most important skill we need to succeed in life is listening. As parents, we all want our children to listen to us, to listen to their teachers at school and to others. But how can you help your child become a good listener? Well perhaps, the key is to be good listeners ourselves. After all, children learn behaviours by observing the actions of their parents.
A recent experience has led me to reflect upon this. While on holidays I was relaxing by the pool at a resort watching a mother use her smartphone as her baby sat on her lap. The 8-10 month old chewed on the corner of a cloth and wiggled around for a good half an hour as his mother paid a lot more attention to her phone than to him. Now please don’t get me wrong, I am not judging this mother as a bad mother. There have been times where I have sat glued to my phone as my children played around me. However, this scene really did make me reflect upon the impact of my own actions and of other modern parents on our children. What are we teaching them when we pay so much attention to our screens that we essentially tune them out?
Babies start developing listening skills while still in the womb. These skills continue to develop based on the interactions babies have with their parents and the world around them. The fact is that we can nurture this skill in our children from the very get go – but it may mean that we need to take a step away from our devices and show good listening ourselves!
A child who is a good listener is more likely to be a successful adult
So why are listening skills so important for success in life? Just ask Richard Branson. His best business advice is ‘Listen more than you talk’. He credits listening skills as the main factor in his success with Virgin. Indeed many successful entrepreneurs, CEOs and business executives all have excellent listening skills in common. And if we want our children to have excellent listening skills as adults, like most life skills, it all starts in the early years.
Why listening skills are important at each stage of early development
Babies are born with the ability to hear and the inclination to listen. As they listen to the sounds around them, babies begin to learn about listening and language. They respond to sounds in their environment— your voice, or a dog barking, or another baby crying. These sounds imprint their brain with rhythm, inflection, pitch, intensity changes and more. They prepare the way for the ear to respond to incoming speech sounds.
Toddlers continue to learn through listening as they grow, developing listening skills from interactions with us and with other children. Of course, it’s at this age that we expect our children to demonstrate their listening skills by following our directions which is much easier said than done. My toddlers were more selective in their listening than my husband!
Listening skills become even more important when your child enters a learning environment such as kindergarten or preschool. Not just for pre-literacy and numeracy learning but also for social development as children engage in conversations with their peers and teachers.
How listening skills impact learning at school
Once a child gets to school, if they are a good listener they will do better. As a primary school teacher I can attest to this. When I give out a set of directions for my students to follow I check for understanding and think that everyone knows what they need to do. While some of my students complete the task correctly, there are always students who have no idea what to do or perform the task incorrectly. It’s usually the same students who are on track (the active listeners) and the same students who aren’t (the passive listeners).
I have noticed that skilful listening is getting harder and harder for young children and so have my teaching colleagues. Skilful listening is about being able to stay focused on the message, not letting yourself get distracted and connecting meaningfully with the message. Many children struggle to do all of these things. It has often made me wonder why – are we as parents modelling good listening skills at home? Or are we too easily distracted by our devices and ignoring our children when they talk to us?
It’s quite clear that listening skills are the building blocks for lifetime success. So what can we do at home to foster or improve our children’s listening skills?
Tips for helping your child to become a good listener
- Talk with your baby all the time. Make eye contact with them when you speak and use facial expressions to help them learn. Respond to their cues, which really is a form of listening. (For more on how to talk to your baby read more in my blog 7 tips for talking to your baby and building intelligence through language.)
- Sing to your baby. There’s nothing that they enjoy more than the sound of your voice and listening to you sing prepares your baby’s brain for language learning. I have developed an online program of music activities for babies to encourage more parents to sing to their babies. You can learn lots of beautiful lullabies and songs to sing to your little one by joining my 8 session online music program!
- Expose your baby to different sounds. Make everyday sounds a focus for listening (ie nature sounds like birds or human sounds like cars). Draw your baby’s attention to unusual sounds around them. Play percussion instruments for your baby – tambourines, shakers, guiro etc and talk about the different sounds they make.
- Listen to your toddler. As hard as it may be to remove ourselves from the busy world of smartphones, social media, emails etc, if we want our kids to listen to us, we have to listen to them. Of course there are going to be times when we need to check emails or send texts but just make sure that the important times, ie mealtimes and bath times belong to your child. Respond to their questions, ask them questions and repeat what they say so that they know that you are listening to them and are interested in what they are saying.
- Meet your toddler at their level. Small children live in a big world. When you get down to their level they feel listened to and a part of your world.
- Do action songs – action songs help your child link certain words with their meanings or a particular action. Think ‘Wheels on the bus’, ‘Heads and Shoulders’, fingerplays like “Incy Wincy Spider” and ‘5 Little Monkeys’.
- Converse with your preschooler. If you model good communication skills (lots of eye contact and active listening) by the time your child is a preschooler they should be able to to carry on conversations that involve listening skills and language skills.
- Keep calm and…those posters offer some good advice. All people, including preschoolers, listen better when someone is speaking to them in a calm voice. Yelling commands doesn’t do anyone any favours. So next time your child does something to rile you, take a deep breath and speak calmly.
- Listen to music. I’m talking about listening actively to music not just leaving it on in the background. Introduce your child to a wide selection of music and talk to them about what they are hearing. Encourage them to identify when the music changes, when it is loud or quiet, high or low, fast or slow. Show them pictures of the instruments they can hear or better still, take them to see live performances. Children learn through direct interaction, so give them instructions to follow such as moving to the music in different ways ie. marching, clapping, swaying etc.
Helping your child to become a good listener takes time, effort and patience. But the rewards (including a better relationship with your child) may be greater than you can imagine.