How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk

How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von Buseck18 Minutes

CVB: Why did you choose to write a book about listening to your kids? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? (laughs)

Becky Harling: Well, bear in mind, you write to your deepest needs. (laughs) I am a Christian communicator, so I talk a lot, which carries over into my parenting journey. As parents, we are always telling our kids, “Brush your teeth, make your bed, do your homework, blah, blah, blah.” There were two pivotal moments in my parenting journey. One of them was when my one daughter, Steph, was four years old and she was a negotiator. I remember one day falling on my knees before the Lord saying, “I can’t do this, because I’m messing her up! Everything is an argument.”

The Lord showed me that I really needed to give Steph a voice. I remember thinking, “I’m pretty sure she has a voice!” But the Lord wanted me to shape her voice and not silence it. So I began changing my parenting style and really began focusing on connecting with my kids and trying to listen to them more than just telling them what to do.

I wrote a book several years ago called How to Listen So People Will Talk. My publisher came to me after that book and they said, “Hey, how about one for parents with kids?” So then I wrote this book.

CVB: Okay. So what are some of the tricks of the trade? I’ve got three kids. They’re all now adults, and thankfully we’re friends. I’m still the Dad, but the older they get, the more we are on more of a peer level. But it’s not always that way with our children.

Becky: No. It’s the same way with our kids, and that’s a blessing. Our kids are all adults now and we have 14 grandchildren. Listening changes when your kids are adults. As a grandparent, you keep your mouth shut a lot more. You don’t give advice unless they ask for it. You put out the welcome mat and you offer a lot of free dinners, and things like that, and it’s awesome.

But speaking of tricks of the trade for when your kids are still at home, parents can begin to focus on developing the strongest connection with this child so that when they leave, they still want to come back home. That’s really the thrust behind learning to listen well. As I said, the temptation is always to talk too much.

Here are some of the practical tips from the book. For your little negotiators, when they’re toddlers set a kitchen timer and let them argue their case. Don’t silence it. We did that with our Steph.

Then one of my favorites is teach your kids to write proposals. I came home from a speaking event when Stephanie was 12 and she bounded down the stairs and said, “I want a TV in my room.” Well, that kind of went against everything Steve and I felt as parents. I was really tired. I did not have it in me to have a big argument with her. So I just kind of paused for a minute and sent up one of those silent prayers. Then I said, “Okay, Steph, you go up on the computer and I want you to create a well-written proposal. It has to have good paragraph structure, good sentence structure, punctuation, the whole thing. Explain why you feel you should have a TV in your room.

She went up and she worked for two and a half hours on that proposal. She came down and presented it to me and my husband. After she left the room, we looked at each other and we said, “What are we going to do now? This is really good!”

So we gave her a 25 inch black and white TV that only worked on two channels. I think she only watched it like once or twice, but she felt like she won. So the crowning moment for me was when she did that with her own negotiator.

CVB: Oh, so you have a grand negotiator?

Becky: Yes. Yes. So that’s one of the tips.

I also talk about kids who are more reluctant to share things. There is the power of little things, like the power of a snack to draw your child out. There is also learning the art of asking fun questions, like “When did you feel like a superhero today?” “When were you a good friend today?” Then you really listen to affirm them rather than criticize them.

Another tip in the book is for teenagers. You can get a lot farther in a car ride than you can when they have to look at you face to face when they’re teens. There’s also a whole chapter on teaching your kids to handle emotions in a healthy way. I think a lot of Christians, in an effort to be holy, have dumbed down emotions, when our kids were created in the image of an emotional God. The God of the Bible experiences all the emotions of anger, sorrow, jealousy, and all those things. So it makes sense that our kids are going to experience those as well.

I think particularly during this season of COVID, kids are struggling with anxiety and depression. Kids need parents who will empathize with them, who will validate their feelings, and will say, “Your feelings make sense to me.” They need parents who will help them handle those feelings in a way that reflects their faith.

CVB: I was one of seven children, which made for a lot of interesting communication dynamics. But one of the things that my parents did every year was to take us on a good vacation. How are these kinds of trips a place where communication can really happen?

Becky: A lot of parents right now are stressed out and I’ve had parents tell me, “Well, we can’t afford to take vacation.” Steve and I had the philosophy that we can’t afford to not take a vacation. It was during vacation where we’d be sitting around a campfire at night and we’d have the best spiritual conversations with our kids because we were away from the pressures of general life.

My husband, Steve, loves competition, so we had crazy family competitions during our vacations. There were things like, who can get kicked out of the pool? Now, my husband’s a pastor, but not really a rule follower. Another one was who could walk under water across the pool on their hands the farthest. I mean just crazy stuff.

It’s important to have fun with your kids and play with your kids where everything’s not so serious. When we read through the gospels, we realize that Jesus had an amazing sense of humor. He went to parties. Some of the stories you told are really hilarious when you analyze them and Jesus was not afraid to laugh. As parents, the goal is to build connection. So as you’re playing with your kids, throwing a football on the beach, or hitting a volleyball, or kicking a soccer ball, they’re more likely to open up to you and share their hearts with you.

CVB: When you’re dealing with teens you have all the angst. You’ve got issues with cliques, or with bullying, or with boyfriends and girlfriends, or not having a boyfriend or girlfriend. What do you say about those kinds of things and how to connect with your kids when they’re hurting and challenged?

Becky: You never want to correct emotions. Don’t be too rigid. Looking back on my parenting journey, I’m so thankful that I married my husband. At the beginning of our parenting journey, we agreed we didn’t want to give our children too many rules, because rules become challenges to break. I see a lot of Christian parents who are so uptight about the rules. For example, they insist on their child going to school when they may be having a really bad emotional day.

It’s kind of a joke with our kids now because I would give them emotional health days where they could just stay home from school. Would you want to go back to school?

CVB: No way.

Becky: I wouldn’t want to either. So if your kid is having a meltdown, there’s something going on. So we offered grace so that they will talk to us about their bullying or threats.

Dating is also hard. I wouldn’t want to go back to dating right now with all the pressure. Our youngest daughter was our most compliant child, but she dated a jerk for awhile. We did two things to help. First, we took her to Israel, which really helped her faith. The second thing was that I just felt I needed to increase my prayers for her. So for one month, I got down on my knees and I prayed through the entire book of Ephesians for her.

CVB: Wow.

Becky: I just kept putting her name in there. Then she finally found the courage to break up with that boyfriend. But if you kind of come on too hard and combative in their teen years, you’re going to lose them.

We had one child who was such a perfectionist and she finally broke a rule and my husband was like literally excited. He was a pastor at the time and somebody called him and said, “You have to grab your daughter. She snuck out at this camping trip.” He was so proud of her said, “First of all, I’m really proud of you for breaking the rule. Second of all, you’re grounded for five minutes.”

We always told our kids when they were teens, “We’ll be the heavies. If you’re at a party and something happens and you feel uncomfortable, just blame us and leave.” So my youngest daughter was at a party and some guys brought in a keg of beer. She grabbed her car keys and came home. The next day. I said, “Guess what? We’re going to the mall. You can buy any cool shirt you want.” You really want to reward those decisions.

CVB: That’s really good. Not just the stick, but the carrot as well.

Becky: Absolutely. You know, I joked, Craig, that I was going to write a book called “Blackmail, Bribery, and a Whole Lot of Prayer.” That’s exactly the way we raised our kids.

CVB: Well, that could be the sequel. Very good. So now you have grandchildren as well!

Becky: We have 14 grandchildren. I mean, it was like a grandchildren explosion. It was awesome.

CVB: So, how many original children do you have?

Becky: Four. And now the oldest grandchild just turned eleven.

CVB: So now you’re doing this for a second generation, but it’s different as a grandparent.

Becky: Oh, it’s so different.

CVB: Can you talk to me about the difference?

Becky: Yeah. I mean, you still really want to focus on listening. We have a mob of grandchildren and they all live around us. Traditions have always been important to me, so we still have Sunday dinner when we’re home and they all pile in. It’s free food for every family, so they love that. There are Nerf wars going on, and paper airplanes, and all manner of chaos.

But then I try to also take the grandkids out for individual dates where I can really hear their hearts. I love to ask them a questions – even silly questions. I had my little 4-year-old grandson at Starbucks for a date. I bought him a cake pop and I said, “Well, would you rather be cake pop or a chocolate chip cookie?” He said, “A cake pop.” Then he turned right around and said, “Mimi, would you rather be a donut or a cup of coffee?”

And so I recommend just learning to have fun with the grandkids and then definitely talking with them about Jesus and praying for them. I have 14 prayer journals, one for each grandchild. But it’s also important to listen to them – listening to their hearts about soccer, or skiing, or art, or whatever they’re into.

CVB: Yeah. What are your hopes for this book? Who do you want to touch?

Becky: I’m hoping that parents who are discouraged will pick up this book and think, “I can do this. This is easier than it looks.” For parents who maybe are frustrated because they have a negotiator – I hope they can see their little negotiators as people who are going to grow up to be dynamos for the kingdom of God. Parents just need to know that it’s going to be okay. I just hope and pray that the principles in the book will give them tangible ideas to make parenting fun again.

Order your copy of How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk: Deepen Your Connection and Strengthen Their Confidence by Becky Harling