Listening to Parents

What makes a family? The simplest answer is: belonging. This defining aspect of family according to the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, entails ‘having a proper place, being naturally associated with, fitting into a group naturally.’ A second meaning for belonging is ‘to be the property of.’ The behaviours to which this meaning can give rise may undermine and, tragically, even destroy families.

When an individual interprets belonging, in a relationship, to mean ‘owning, as property,’ he or she assumes the right to control the other person. Control over a smaller, weaker, disabled or impaired family member, when un-coupled from responsibility, can lead to abuse. If alcohol or other drug use comes into the picture, the relationship or family situation can become dangerous, even deadly.

We have many tasks as parents, but the most important one, no less vital for being largely invisible – and more often noticed in its absence – is to give our children emotional security, a sense of belonging. How we do this most effectively is by modeling and teaching constructive ways to handle feelings, our own and others, and to manage conflict.

Families, at their best, provide us deep comfort and true delight, allowing us to express joy, as well as fear, sadness and anger, all natural parts of human experience. At their worst, families can become something akin to a psychological and even a physical war zone, in which so-called negative emotions, either pent-up or acted upon inappropriately, impose irreparable harm on the most vulnerable family members.

The most powerful way in which family members, friends and lovers establish connection with one another and create that ineffable sense of belonging is simply by listening. Yet we cannot give what we do not have. Just as individuals in families listen to each other between and across generations: husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, grandparents, parents and children, so do societies and their leaders listen to individuals through community dialogue on both large and small scales. Government officials and employees, educators, healthcare and other professional care providers, business people and staff of social organisations all have occasions to listen to parents. We are convinced that parents need more and better attention in order to be able to give the same to their children.

A November 2005 World Health Organization report documents the sad fact that violence in the home is a daily reality for families at all socio-economic levels around the globe. The report, based on a survey of 24,000 women in 10 nations, found that, when violence occurs, most often men inflict it and women suffer it. Work of researchers at the University of New Hampshire (USA), however, revealed that, in the United States, boys, more often than girls, are on the receiving end of parents’ corporal punishment (Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families by Murray A. Straus and Denise A. Donnelly, 1994). Is it any wonder, then, that some boys grow up to become men who abuse those close to them?

In many cultures, boys are taught to be ashamed of showing sadness or fear naturally, by crying. Ultimately, men learn to avoid these so-called negative feelings but learn that it is acceptable, even admirable, to express anger by controlling family members through intimidation and verbal or physical violence. Women, on the other hand, are taught to be submissive to their fathers, husbands, and, eventually, their sons. Women suffer social disadvantage and negative health effects from being expected to suppress their anger, while men gain social advantage but suffer negative health effects from being expected to suppress their vulnerability. Children in homes with such rigid roles and behaviours suffer because the adults fail to create a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere.

We can learn an important lesson from the many parents who do create homes that are peaceful and joy-filled, the lesson of listening. Listening, as the same dictionary makes clear, must be done mindfully. It means ‘to make an effort to hear something, to pay attention, give heed.’ Clearly, men and women experience different emotional deficits, but the remedy for these deficits in parents of both genders can be found through the practice of developing emotional awareness.

Listening, as many writers on parenting and family life emphasise, is key to conveying acceptance. A stable, loving family plays many roles in our lives, but the foundation is one of unconditional acceptance, demonstrated by attentive listening. This is not breaking news: parents have been listening to each other, sharing their struggles and successes, since the beginning of time. Around the world today there are many, many good people and remarkable organisations doing wonderful work with parents.

Despite all these efforts, we believe that an essential perspective is missing. Preparation for the myriad tasks of child-rearing still focuses for the most part on expert-led instruction in routine, ‘cookbook’ skills: what parents should do and should not do at each stage of their child’s life. Parents will always need such instruction, but it should be secondary to informal, parent-centred and parent-led activities.

Parenting is fundamentally an emotional task, carried out by human beings who were also parented. We believe that viewing emotional awareness as the basis of parenting gives us a fundamentally new perspective. With this view, we see that it is essential to place primary emphasis on listening to parents in order to help them, as individuals, achieve emotional awareness. The family is a powerful agent for personal, social, political, economic and cultural development. As parents, we cannot change for the better, grow and thrive, unless we first listen to our own hearts, and then listen to the feelings and thoughts of those we love.

At the heart of the emotional task of parenting lies communication. Regardless of our backgrounds, when and how we handle conflict reveals our true values to our children. An increased emphasis on listening will help families practice more honest communication and help parents more effectively manage conflicts in their homes. People can learn to accept all feelings as normal and healthy. Strong feelings, long pent up, may be released in destructive ways if the person feeling them so chooses, but when an individual puts thought before action, he or she can express frustration, anger and even rage in ways that minimise harm and still effectively release tension.

Fathers may perceive loss of power in becoming vulnerable and mothers may fear loss of control in becoming angry and therefore approach emotional awareness differently, but women and men both need to learn how to listen to their own hearts. By increasing their self awareness parents become more confident and more competent in managing the inevitable differences among the needs, wants, feelings and opinions of various family members.

Strategies for handling conflict positively can be learned and communication based on emotional honesty can get to the roots of violence. The building blocks of good communication can be presented in simple and accessible formats. Families, for better and for worse, are cohesive systems: if one member makes a change, however small, from confrontation to communication, other family members will, sooner or later, respond to that change. As we champion the cause of family harmony, we see this effort destined to transform the global face of parenting, parenting education and parent peer support.

Let us take a step back from the family and consider the larger society. Healthy families need various supports from their communities. Parents and children need access to public services providing a clean and safe environment, health care, education and transportation; access to private opportunities offering adequate housing, jobs and financial security to meet their needs; and access to social supports, some positive and preventive, some given through faith communities, recreation and sports leagues, leisure and craft associations as well as other supports that are remedial, like addictions treatment and recovery efforts, both mutual help (or ‘self-help’) programmes and professional counseling.

We propose that all three sectors of society, public, private and social, include more, and more comprehensive, parenting education and support. In the public sector, this will mean increasing the number and quality of parents programmes in clinic, early childhood and school offerings. In the private sector, it will mean adding parents programmes to work/life offerings, now a standard element of enlightened business, industry and labour practice. In the social sector, it will mean raising the profile of parents programmes within the spectrum of positive, preventive and remedial programming already in place.

Both parents and children need a listening ear. We are advocating for greater emotional awareness in parenting and parenting education. Only in families where parents have a sense of belonging and practice attentive listening, do children feel accepted and loved. Only in communities where parents are respected and listened to can children receive the parenting they need and deserve. Since community is essentially an extension of family, strong, healthy families make for vibrant and productive communities. Without doubt, listening to parents must be put at the top of our personal, social, professional and public agendas for the sake of the human family to which we all belong.

This Drum Beat is one of a series of commentary and analysis pieces published by The Communications Initiative. In this article, Eve Sullivan and Wagwau Jamesa present a view of parenting education and support that considers parents first as emotional beings who were themselves parented. Listening, they say, is the key to both parenting and supporting parents who are childrearing. They propose a gender-neutral approach while recognising that cultural traditions and economic realities create quite distinct experiences and behaviours for women and men at all levels of society and in different regions of the world.

Eve Sullivan is founder of PARENTS FORUM, Cambridge, Mass., USA, and member of the board of directors of the International Federation for Parent Education, Sevres, France. Wagwau Jamesa is parenting issues columnist for the New Vision newspaper, Kampala, Uganda. They welcome your feedback and inquiries.

Eve Sullivan

Wagwau Jamesa
Uganda New Vision