6 Ways to Give Children a Voice
Having a parent who listens creates a child who believes he or she has a voice that matters in this world
1. Stop moving and stop doing when they speak to you.
By looking up from the task at hand and looking into your children’s eyes, you are indicating you value their thoughts, no matter how trivial. This provides both a foundation and an invitation for more difficult conversations as they grow.
* Tip: If your days are full and you cannot give your undivided attention whenever your child speaks, make sure there is a time of day when you can be fully present. Maybe it is at bedtime or right afterschool. When my daughter was three she began asking for “Talk Time” at night. It involved ten minutes of her asking innocent questions and telling me trivial things and me giving her my undivided attention. She is now thirteen years old and we still have “Talk Time” every night. As one would expect, the questions and topics have become more serious, and I am grateful to be part of the conversation.
2. Respect their words.
Maybe it takes time for your children to put their thoughts into words. It’s okay; you don’t have to finish their sentences — they will come. Maybe their opinions are completely nuts. It’s okay; you don’t have to agree. Maybe they remember something differently than the way you do. It’s okay; you don’t have to be “right.” By giving children the time and space to share what’s on their hearts, you are strengthening their voices.
3. Let them speak for themselves whenever possible.
When my children have something they want to tell the coach, the waiter, or the sales clerk, I first let them practice what they want to say and then they are encouraged to speak for themselves. I will never forget when we were sitting at my child’s fifth grade parent/teacher conference and the teacher asked if we had any concerns. My daughter respectfully spoke up to say she loved helping her classmates but there was one male student who made her feel very uncomfortable. The teacher said, “I hear you. I understand.” I was relieved my child was able to express this feeling of unease in an effort to protect herself. I commend the teacher for validating my daughter’s feelings by her supportive response.
4. Let them be the expert of something.
When my younger daughter was four, I could not locate my car in a mall parking lot and feared it had been stolen. She quickly pointed out that we were not in the right section and showed me the way. That night, I deemed her ‘The Parking Lot Expert’ and she beamed. She is nine now and still calls out, “Don’t worry, Mom! I remember where we parked!” She is also The Name Expert in our family because she always remembers people’s names. I also designated her The Music Expert because she knows how to tune and play her instruments, as well as sing beautifully. Children soar when their gifts are acknowledged and affirmed. By letting them lead, it gives them confidence to voice their skills and wisdom.
5. Listen without fixing, without judgement.
When your children talk to you, surrender the need to be “right” or “teach a lesson.” Instead, make meaningful connection your sole desire. Ask your loved ones how you can support them and then listen — just listen. Instead of trying to fix the problem or dictate the next move, simply ask, “How can I best support you?” or “How can I help?” These two questions bring down the defenses, validate feelings, and put you on the same team. It is empowering for your loved ones to know you are for them, not against them, by loving them through listening.
6. Pause before responding when troubling information is shared.
When children describe shocking information or confess to making a poor choice, take a three-second pause and try this response: “Thank you for trusting me with this. You did the right thing by telling me.” No matter how angry you are or how much you want to reprimand them, it can take just one volatile outburst to shut down future communications with your child. “Thank you for trusting me with this,” opens up both the discussion at hand and the discussions of the future. Think about who you want them to confide in when they are worried, scared, or hurt. If you want it to be you, muster all the grace you have and speak calmly in troubling times.
There is a good chance that someday our children will find themselves in a difficult situation and they’ll have a choice — either to suffer in silence or speak up. And perhaps that is the moment they will remember your eyes, the nodding of your head, and your thoughtful response. And suddenly they will be reminded that their voice holds value. And when you believe your voice holds value, it can make a life-changing difference.
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