I came across a slogan on facebook the other day: people, use your voice and it got me thinking about communication and personal expression. There’s another slogan – I’ve seen it on bumper stickers: children should be seen and heard and believed. Put the two together and you get an idea that sounds good: support your child’s voice, but actually doing that is surprisingly challenging.

Since behavior is communication, I’m going to stretch the idea of the “voice” to include actions.

I have a big “voice” in a lot of ways, even though I can be very soft-spoken in person. When I was first a step-parent, I used my voice in very authoritarian ways. In my understanding of the world, parents had voices and children didn’t – although honestly I would have been appalled and defensive if anyone had said that to me. I thought I was being a respectful parent, honoring the voice of the person I imagined my stepson would one day be.

One of the hardest aspects of parents learning to listen to their children’s voices is learning to hear “no”. It’s devastating. We hang a whole lot of our self-worth on the hope of being accepted and validated by our children – especially if we didn’t get enough acceptance and validation as children, ourselves. So being told “no” by a child can rock a parent to the core. No, I won’t accept that lovingly created gift of nurturing food. No, I won’t wear that beautiful hand-made dress. No, I won’t stop what I’m doing in favor of what you’re doing. No, I’m not you; I don’t like what you like. Ouch. It’s little wonder most parents kick and scream (metaphorically at least) and use their big voices to quiet those persistent nos.

The most common mistake parents who are trying to live peacefully with children make is thinking they can tell and explain, use enough words or the right words, to get children to do what they, the parents want the to do. It’s a mistake in communication, one that misses out on the most important part of communication: listening.

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