God made people with two ears and only one mouth. However, teachers tend to talk much more than they listen.
One of the most precious gifts you can give to the children in your group is to truly listen to them. When you listen to a child, you’re telling her (no words needed!) that she’s important. When you listen, you are also modeling God’s gracious listening ears, showing kids that God listens to them too. When you listen, really listen to children, you’re giving them permission, inviting them to ask important questions and explore their faith.
But listening involves more than ears—it also involves the heart, the mind, and the will. In a Family Circus cartoon, the little girl is tugging at her daddy’s sleeve as he’s buried in the newspaper. “Daddy,” she insists, “you need to listen to me with your eyes as well as your ears."
Listening does not come naturally to most of us. But it’s a skill that can be learned. Here are some tips for active listening:
- Listen with your whole body. Maintain eye contact. Gesture, nod, smile, lean into the conversation. Do whatever you can to show children that you are engaged with them. Kids need to know that you’re listening not only to their words but also to their hearts.
- Watch for body language that reflects more than what the child is saying. Only a small part of communication happens through words. Drooping shoulders and folded arms speak volumes. So do sparkling eyes and dancing toes.
- Give children permission to talk. Begin conversations with open-ended starters such as “Tell me about your day” or “I wonder how you feel about your sick dog.” Often children need to be encouraged to talk, to know that you are really interested.
- Don’t interrupt! Listening takes patience. Children have a more limited vocabulary and take longer to express themselves than adults. Inviting them to share their concerns makes them vulnerable; an interruption may squash that hesitant attempt to express and share a thought or idea.
- Wait to formulate your response until the child is finished talking. Children can read eyes and body language very quickly—they’ll know if you’ve jumped to conclusions before they’re finished explaining themselves.
- Ask further questions for clarification if you’re not sure you’re hearing the essence of what a child is saying. Rephrase what you think you’re hearing, then ask, “Is this what you’re saying, or am I getting it wrong?”
- Reflect children’s feelings back to them. Often kids can’t name their feelings with words or are afraid to name them. You can help by articulating them. Saying, “It sounds like you’re sad that your friend has found a new buddy to hang out with” may bring relief that an unspoken feeling has been validated.
- Ask for children’s opinions regularly. (They definitely have them!) Ask them how they feel about war and what they think is the most important problem world leaders need to address. Asking for kids’ opinions communicates respect for their ideas. Accept opinions that are expressed without challenging their rightness. You may want to ask follow-up questions to help the child think through implications, but a child’s opinion is a child’s opinion. Let it be!
- Share your own questions and uncertainties (subject to age-appropriate discernment, of course). For instance, say something like “I’d really like to redecorate our classroom walls, but I don’t know where to begin. Any ideas?”
- Extend conversations by asking good questions that reveal more about the child’s world. Children are usually eager to talk about themselves and their lives, from the mundane to the sublime. You have a great opportunity to learn more about kid culture and about the children themselves.
When adults model good listening, children learn essential communication skills. The greatest audience a child can have is a caring, thoughtful, interested adult who is important to them. That’s you!