How Much Do You Listen to Kids? I Mean REALLY Listen?

How much do we really listen to our children? I mean really listen.

Do you know why even the best minds of the past misunderstood children, especially babies? I’ll tell you why. They never spent time with them, talking to them, asking them questions, and listening to what they had to say.

As is often the case with brilliant thinkers, they’re used to relying on their own ability to dissect, wrestle with, and eventually grasp any subject.

When it came to young children, these adults made assumptions about children that were far from the truth. Whether an ancient thinker such as Aristotle or more recent psychologists such as Freud and Skinner, the upsetting thing is that they rarely took the time to actually study the children!

Unfortunately, the same happens in today’s classrooms, too. Teachers, many of them quite knowledgeable in their particular field of interest, neglect the students themselves. And this is not a phenomenon isolated in the universities or high school.

Elementary teachers and preschool teachers can sometimes be guilty of this, too – and often because of the same basic assumption the philosophers made: that children are simple creatures in need of the help of an adult to keep them functioning until they are able to enter the adult world.

It’s easy to see why such a view would appear almost obvious. After all, babies cannot speak, coordinate their own movements, or even feed themselves. Even as children grow older and more advanced in their abilities, they are still dependent in so many ways on adult caregivers, who incorrectly interpret this need as being a sign of deficiency in the young child, when in fact, quite the opposite is true.

As the field of child psychology has developed, crucial discoveries have been made to correct our past views about children. Yet still many basic assumptions persist that make their way into the classroom.

What is needed is for adults to let go of some of their preconceived notions and actually observe and listen to the children. Also, adults must learn to let children make mistakes and to keep on trying. Teachers and parents have a tendency to hover around children trying to keep absolute order and are ready to swoop down any time a child looks like they are in need, whether they’re carrying something too heavy or trying to correctly put glitter on the glue.

If you will actually listen to these children, however, you will consistently hear one message: let me do this on my own. Children possess a fierce desire for independence. Why else would they struggle so hard to walk, when consistently they fall down, often very painfully? Why else would they make such concentrated efforts to learn language? Simply to tell you they love you? Nope. They can do that with a hug. What they want is independence. That’s why their first words are often “No!” followed shortly by “Me do it!”

As parents and teachers, we are terrified of things far less important than their independence. Things like messes. Or projects taking much longer than they would if we jumped in and helped out. Or the always terrifying “low self-esteem” that we are sure will develop in our children if they make too many mistakes.

As I have written previously about the danger of praising ability over effort, we do more to hurt their ‘precious self-esteem’ when we constantly hover over them, praising their every success and trying too hard to minimize their mistakes. Children need to make mistakes. It helps them learn to persevere and teaches them that it is more important that they continue to take on challenges than it is to get it right on the first try.

This means less hovering at home and in the classroom. It may be hard to do for you, but it’s what your child needs. Don’t make the same mistake as the great philosophers and assume your view of children is the right one and neglect to ask the children themselves.

They might just surprise you. Child psychologists are regularly surprised at what their studies reveal to them about children. What these researchers and scientists do right is they simply ask questions and observe. The children provide the answers.

Ask yourself, how was Jesus with the children? He modeled it for us perfectly. Jesus loved having the children come to Him. He cared for and valued them. At one point, Scripture tells us, “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And He said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.’” (Matthew 18:2-5)

In so doing, Jesus listened to the children. Let us do so today. It may surprise us to hear all they have to tell us.

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Jody Capehart
Jody Capehart has more than 40 years' experience as a children's minister. She's the co-author of The Discipline Guide for Children's Ministry and the author of numerous other books. She currently teaches Sunday School at Stonebriar Community Church.