Helping Kids Feel Important

“You never listen to me!” complained my nine-year-old. She was trying to tell me about the antics of some of the boys in her Spanish class while I was trying to start a load of laundry and clean up the kitchen. My occasional ‘uh huh’ as I let her words wash over me clearly wasn’t enough. She wanted me to really pay attention, to acknowledge that she and her experiences matter.

Children are all too aware that society rarely takes them seriously. They often feel that their viewpoints are trivialized by adults.Their seemingly naive questions and interpretations may prompt laughter rather than a thoughtful response. They feel small and marginalized, even as we encourage them to be confident and try new things. They may even wonder why they should bother when no one really cares what they think.

Experts say that well-being requires a sense of competence and social importance. By this they mean that each child needs to feel like they are making a contribution, that their ideas and efforts matter. Kids depend on the adults around them to affirm their value. A bunch of distracted ‘uh huhs’ don’t convey that message.

One way we can help children feel that they matter is to make time to really listen to them. We have to stop what we are doing – even if just for a couple of minutes – and pay attention to their words and body language. We might make eye contact or put a hand on their arm to show we are engaged. We can also repeat what they’ve said back to them or ask questions to learn more.

Children also learn that they are important when we follow up on things they have shared previously. Keep a running list in a phone app of stuff kids have said so you can remember and check back in. Ask what the boys in Spanish class did today, whether lunch in the school cafeteria was more palatable this week, or whether their friend has found a lost pet. You can even set your phone to buzz you with reminders to check in.

Taking the initiative to talk is another way to convey that we value children. We might set up a regular 5 minute check-in each day on the way home from school or a weekly conversation over a shared snack. Family surveys, where everyone gets to express their opinion or preferences, also suggest that kids’ voices matter. Ask what’s working well and what needs attention in your family routines or plans, and then take action in response to their feedback.

Kids also feel valued when adults let them know that they like spending time with them. Even the busiest schedule can be adjusted to allow for some ‘hang out’ time. Drop what you’re doing to chase down the ice cream truck together. Schedule shared breaks from homework, housework, and office work where you crank up some music and dance. Draw pictures with sidewalk chalk, shoot hoops, or research a common interest online together. By doing something as equals, you convey that being a kid matters the same as being an adult.



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