When my son, Zak, was 4, he loved to snuggle up to my pregnant belly and talk to his sibling. "Zoobie," he called her, "How are you doing in there? Is it crowded? Are you a boy or a girl? Want to share my room?" The day Emma Rose was born, Zak and his two other sisters crowded around her. She was gazing sleepily at me as she nursed -- until Zak spoke. The instant she heard his voice, her eyes widened and she looked straight at him, as if to say, "So that's who you are!"
Babies begin to listen at about 6 months in utero, according to Kathy Thompson, associate professor of professional communication at Alverno College, in Milwaukee. They respond with movement to all kinds of sounds and even shift their body in rhythm with their mother's speech. Listening is the first sense -- and the first language skill -- we develop. From the get-go, it's the primary way we learn.
"Throughout life," says Thompson, "listening is the communication skill most used -- to gather information, to show others that we care, to do our work." But it's also the one that's least taught. Good news: Kids can learn how to listen better. You're in the perfect position to teach them, beginning early on.
An infant is acutely aware of sounds -- her dad's voice, a door opening, the melody of her mobile -- and learns to associate them with tangible things or people (like Zak) or feelings (like comfort).
Even before she utters her first sound, you can teach your baby about the cadence of speech just by talking to her about the bright flowers or the dreary weather. Point out and name the objects in her environment, and she'll discover how things are labeled.
Once she's old enough to coo or babble -- at about 4 months -- she'll use her listening skills to make noises purposely, repeating and modifying sounds she hears. Let her finish what she's "saying," thena respond -- you'll be giving her an introduction to the art of conversation.
Grab Their Attention
One key to raising a listener is to find the time -- daily if you can -- to really tune in to your child as he toddles out of babyhood, says Marsha Gabriel, Ph.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology for Cook Children's Medical Center, in Fort Worth. When he talks to you, look him in the eyes, ask him clarifying questions, don't interrupt, and repeat back the gist of what he said when he's finished. And try to respond promptly. Jennifer Heiskala of San Diego found that when she began to answer 2-year-old Makena's initial "What's that?" (instead of her seventh inquiry), Makena began to respond faster to her mom's requests too.
Look for other ways to give listening its full due in your family. "Talking shouldn't be a competitive sport, with everyone trying to get attention and the first person to take a breath considered the listener," says Thompson. Take time to hear one another out -- whether at the dinner table or while waiting in line at the drive-through.
When you read, ham it up and interject questions and comments: "What do you think will happen next?" "Why do you think Little Bear said that?" "See how happy the engine looks?" Your child will learn to make predictions, watch for physical cues (such as a train's smiling grille or the frown on a speaker's face), identify a story's main ideas, and respond to what he hears -- all important components of good, active listening.
Earth to Child
Of course, not everything you want your toddler to listen to will be as compelling as a good book, and you can't expect her to listen to much of anything for more than five or ten minutes. But there are several steps you can take to make sure that what you say registers:
- Seek her undivided attention. When Jennifer Heiskala asks her daughter, "Do you have your listening ears on?" Makena knows it's time to pay attention. Get down to your child's eye level, or even give her a physical cue, such as a tap on the shoulder or a stroke of her hair. "Your child won't listen to you if she doesn't even realize you're talking to her," says Teri Krivanek of Powell, Ohio, the mother of 9-year-old Alli. When she was a toddler, Alli got clear signs from Mom when something required special attention -- such as discussions about safety. "I'd ask her to look me in the eye, and I'd tell her, 'This is important, and I need you to listen very carefully,'" says Krivanek. "Then I asked her to repeat it back to me."
- Negate noise. Young kids are easily distracted, so quieting things down helps them focus. Be sure you're not competing with the TV or radio.
- Keep it in her ballpark. Use language she can understand, and speak clearly. Try not to give too much information at once. Until they're school age, says Gabriel, most kids can handle only one directive at a time. So don't tell your toddler to brush her teeth, put on her socks, and find her shoes. Compliment her pearly whites, then deal with the bare feet.
- Reward her efforts. Build on your child's successes by praising her when she listens. Toddlers respond well to reward systems too -- stickers, tally charts, puzzles (cut up a picture of something she wants, such as a toy truck, then post a piece of the puzzle every time she succeeds, until she's completed the picture -- and won the prize).
- Be dramatic. Get on the floor with your child and strike up a conversation among her toy animals or make her trucks go "vroom!" The combination of action and sound enhances learning.
"The preschool years are critical for parents to establish good communication with their child," says Gloria White, coordinator of psychological services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "This bond will carry through the teen years."
And, of course, listening is the basis for your child's burgeoning education now. All of the strategies used with toddlers also work well with older kids: modeling, giving physical cues, eliminating distractions. But now that your child has a better attention span and can understand more complex ideas, there are some other considerations to keep in mind -- and a few new techniques to try:
- Pick a good moment. Preschoolers can listen longer than toddlers, but that also means they don't like to be interrupted when they're captivated by something else. In one of our family videos, Zak, then 3, is at the front door, watching farmers fill our barn with hay. While taping, we tried to engage him in a conversation and get him to look at the camera. It took enormous effort to elicit a "huh?" and an obligatory, split-second glance at the lens. The tape is endearing because it captures his infatuation, but as far as listening to us, he may as well have said "Not now!" Fair enough.
- Lengthen storytime. By reading longer books to your child, you can stretch the amount of time he listens. Or tell him to close his eyes and go to the beach with you. "Hear the waves?" you might ask. "Taste the salty air on your lips?" Continue with a tale of adventure on the sand -- starring him, of course. "Storytelling without visuals builds on the power of words," says Karen Deerwester, who teaches parenting classes in Parkland, FL.
- Play it up. Now that your child can grasp rules, you can add a few games to his listening repertoire. Such classics as Simon Says help him focus, listen for details, and watch for nonverbal signals. Mastering the directions for simple board games like Candy Land requires careful listening to instructions. A few other play possibilities:
Using a pencil, tap a rhythm on the table. Ask your child to copy it. Once he gets the hang of it, add to its length or vary it by adding a toe tap or a second pencil.
Draw a simple picture, but don't show it to your child. Describe it to him, then have him try to draw the same thing based on your verbal directions only. When he's done, compare.
Gather some noisemakers (castanets, clackers, bells, a tambourine) and have him identify the instruments only by their sounds (with his eyes closed).
Classroom success depends on the ability to listen. In fact, 75 percent of what your child learns in school will be delivered through speech. Teachers lament the lack of listening skills in students, and new academic programs are popping up to tackle the problem. But these classes are still few and far between, so here's what you can do at home:
- Enforce some ground rules. A kindergartner is old enough to follow a few guidelines about communication. Kim Ratliff, a kindergarten teacher at Belinder Elementary School, in Prairie Village, KS, suggests that parents expect eye contact from their children when they're talking with them. "It's not only common courtesy," she says. "It also greatly increases the odds that the child will really listen." If she has trouble focusing on your words, ask her to repeat what you said, and if you give her a directive, make sure she follows up on it. "Don't let your child mold you into a parent who repeats everything four times," Ratliff says.
- Listen -- to her teacher. If your child's not paying attention in class, work together to nip the problem in the bud. The teacher may have specific suggestions or key problems to address -- such as listening when other kids are talking (help her practice during playdates) or being attentive during storytime (while you read to her at home, after a sentence, pause and ask her to repeat what you've just read).
- Raise the bar a bit. Add new, more complicated board games to your collection (she'll have to pay attention to follow the new rules). Try Sorry!, Scrabble, or even Twister. Invent listening games to play together: For example, give her a sheet of numbers and have her circle those she hears you say or those you say the loudest. Read increasingly sophisticated books as well. Deerwester recommends chapter books that are one grade ahead of her reading level.
Once he has a few grade-school years under his belt, your child should be ready to polish his listening skills, but it'll take some help from you -- and maybe some tact. "Kids eight and older want to communicate, but they often fear disapproval from Mom and Dad, so they may act distant," says Lorraine McCune, associate professor of educational psychology at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education. When your child does open up, don't scare him away with lectures or admonishments, and make sure he knows that the lines of communication are always open. Then crank up his skills a notch:
- Continue to read out loud. Take turns and discuss the material. Read from sports magazines, classics, or comics -- whatever will make listening fun.
- Tune in together. Before watching a TV show with him, tell him to listen for specific information. If you're seeing a special on Michael Jordan, for example, have him find out why, when, and where Jordan tried baseball. Talk about what your child caught between the lines and what was stated outright.
- Teach him to be discerning. Point out that when two people talk about the same incident (for instance, when he and a sibling have had a spat), there are differences in the stories. Why does he think this happens?
- Play more sophisticated games, such as Password and Quidditch: The Game. When a group of friends comes over, show them how to play a more complex version of "telephone." Have two of the kids leave the room and one of them tell the other a story. Send the initial storyteller back into the room and another child out to hear the story, and so on, until everyone's had a chance to hear the tale. Have the last child return to the room and tell the story -- by this point, it's usually changed a lot.
With not much time left in grade school, your child will be changing quite a bit over the next few years as well. As adolescence approaches -- with a little luck -- you can prepare to reap especially big rewards for having raised a good listener.