Honouring What Our Kids Are Telling Us
I took the kids camping all by myself last summer. Actually, a friend was there with her kids, and we were at a campsite in a town, but still…! Any time I tackle something like that without Brian, I’m going to consider it a major accomplishment! Anyway, the first night was a little rough. One of the boys was taking a long time to settle down, and I was starting to panic. I still had a bit of unpacking to do and I was already dreading the early wake-up I knew I’d have to face the next morning. In an effort to practice trust-based parenting, I kept asking my son, “What do you need?” Every time I asked, he would reply, “Exercise!” and start bouncing around. At this point, my trust-based parenting skills fell apart, because I would then say, “No, you don’t. You need sleep. Now settle down and close your eyes.” We must have had this exchange half a dozen times, and both of us were getting frustrated. Meanwhile, I was also texting Brian, hoping he would have some wisdom and perspective for me. When I mentioned that our son was claiming to need exercise, he texted back with, “So why don’t you let him go outside for 5 minutes?” Exasperated, but willing to try anything, I asked if he wanted to help me unload the cooler contents into the fridge. He jumped at the chance (literally) and within 10 minutes the work was done. Within another 10 minutes, he was asleep. Why did I argue with him for so long?!
As part of our Empowered to Connect training, we teach the importance of meeting our kids’ needs. We discuss how crucial it is to faithfully meet their needs if we want to build trust, and we encourage parents to give joyful yeses whenever they can. We highlight the fact that “What do you need?” is a much more helpful and productive question than “What’s your problem?” or “What’s wrong with you?” I wonder, though, if we neglect to cultivate an attitude of true curiosity within ourselves. When I’m asking my children to tell me what they need, I’m usually pretty sure I already know the answer. At best, I’ve got a short list of acceptable answers in mind. When their response doesn’t match my preconceived ideas, I feel suspicious of them. I wonder if they’re taking the whole thing seriously, and I may even argue with them. Sometimes, I find myself dismissing their needs because they are actually just wants, and I want to get down to the true underlying need. But what if my child doesn’t even know what he really needs in that moment? What if meeting their expressed needs gives them the freedom and ability to trust me with their ‘actual’ needs?
I believe that if we want to build trust and effectively meet our kids’ needs, we have to honour what they’re telling us. If we approach the conversation with a dismissive “I know better than you” attitude, they’re not going to believe that their voice matters, and they’re not going to trust us to meet their needs. Meeting their needs teaches them that they have a voice, and that they can trust us.
Jesus models this so well for us! In Luke 18, we read of an encounter he has with a blind man. The man is shouting as Jesus and his entourage go by, trying to get the Lord’s attention. People around Jesus are trying to shush the man, but Jesus insists on speaking with him. When the man is brought to him, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41 NLT) I love how Jesus takes the time to give this blind beggar a voice, approaching his need with gentleness and curiosity. There’s not a hint of arrogance or presumption. How beautiful! Of course, when the man responds with, “I want to see!” he is healed. Jesus could have healed him without that bit of dialogue, but I believe this is an important glimpse into God’s heart – he wants us to know we can trust him with our needs and desires. He invites us into relationship by encouraging us to speak our needs: he gives us voice. And when we do trust him and bring our needs to him, there is no ridicule; we are not dismissed. Instead, we are heard. We are seen. And we learn to trust.
So how do I bring this attitude to my conversations with my children? Here are a few keys that help me:
- Be curious. When I actually listen to what they’re trying to tell me, I often discover an unmet need I can help meet.
- Be creative. Sometimes it is not possible to meet their stated need, either because of time constraints and general life parameters, or because they’re asking for the equivalent of a helicopter and a million bucks. In these situations, I can often defer meeting the need – “That’s a yes for later!” – or I can figure out a compromise that lets them know they were heard and that I want to meet their needs.
- Reframe misbehaviours as unmet needs. This has helped me shift my parenting focus from punishment to teaching. It creates the opportunity to teach the skill of getting one’s needs met appropriately: with words instead of behaviour.
- Make sure your own needs are being met! The topic of self-care deserves a post all its own, but suffice it to say that curiosity, creativity and joy are not present when I am feeling unseen and unheard. Cultivating practices that care for my whole being – body, mind, and spirit – will increase my capacity to care for my children.
What tools/strategies do you use to ensure that your kids are feeling heard? Are your own needs being met to give you the energy/capacity to be available for your kids? We’d love to hear from you!