Shut Up and Listen

It doesn’t cease to fascinate me that problem-solving and conflict resolution are lost skills these days, and not considered a priority by many teachers, parents and carers. I wonder if they were never valued skills, or if we just got off track somewhere along the way.

I admit that most of the time, it seems faster and easier to play the role of the almighty wise Adult in Authority; to just intervene, give the children answers, direct their actions, or distribute consequences when difficult behavior arises.

I have been there: The kids are whiny and constantly pushing each other’s buttons and mine. I’m at the end of my rope and it’s not even lunch time yet. Child A commits some atrocity against Child B, and they come screaming to me for help, telling me their sides of the story at the same time. I make a judgement, and dole out a consequence… preferably something that provides a moment of peace and quiet (but more likely, something that initiates a tantrum). I do not have the emotional energy to sit them down and guide them in deep breathing and listen to both sides in turn and lead them toward peace and reconciliation.

I’ve been there when I’m trying to get a fussy toddler diapered and dressed, and Sister is relentlessly bending my ear about a mean girl in her class. I don’t have time to pause and play counselor. So I distribute a “sounds like she’s not a girl you want as a friend,” and let the conversation end.

I’ve also been there when I have 36 schoolagers to keep track of on a busy playground, and focusing on facilitating a moment of self-occurring wisdom for warring children is honestly just not my top priority.

But over the last several years of my career of working with children, I have been learning and appreciating more and more… Kids already possess the capacity for conflict resolution. They already have naturally developing wisdom.  They already know when they messed up, and they can feel guilty and fix it. They are full and complete (yet small) human beings, just in need of experiences and opportunities to practice.

I’m realizing that I’m making this harder than it is.

In Faber and Mazlish’s book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, they discuss, among other brilliant topics, the many challenges of the simplest idea: Shut up and listen.

It initially seemed so self-condescending to put into practice. It’s hard to let go of the thoughts, “But I have so much wisdom to offer!” “But I have the most perfect points for a great lecture!” “But I could solve this problem with one sentence, and then we’d be done with it!” “But this kid made a terrible decision, and I need them to know it!”

But in reality, if I followed through with any of those trains of thought, I’d be making more work for myself, and denying the child the opportunity to gain some experience and insight on their own.

When I started listening instead of talking, I discovered what seemed like a whole new dimension in my students. It is so hard to learn to resist the urge to respond with more than “Oh?” or “Hmm.” but it is hilariously wonderful what a difference is made when I don’t.


This is my favorite story about this method:

My class was in the woods for recess and Lyla, seven years old and hopelessly in love with all living things, found a toad. Violet wanted to see the toad, but Lyla wouldn’t let her. She walked away with it still in her hands and Violet followed with an incessant chorus of “Just let me see it. I won’t touch it. Please just let me look.” Even I was starting to get tired of hearing her repetitive pleas, as she followed Lyla everywhere through the woods. Finally the trees shook with Violet’s screams and sobs as she ran to me, “Lyla killed the frog!” I heard her story and consoled her through her devastation and trauma. Lyla just watched us from afar, and I left her alone.

I carried on the supervision of my class, but I noticed Lyla walking huge, slow circles around me, which shrunk with each round. Eventually, she was just walking methodically around me, kicking up dust with the toes of her cowgirl boots.

Me: “Hi Lyla. How’s it going?”

Lyla: “Good.”

[moment of silence/ kicking dirt]

Lyla: “Miss Bailey… Violet thinks I killed that toad.”

Me: “Yes, she does.”

Lyla: “I didn’t kill it. She just kept following me everywhere I went, and she wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew if I put it down in a safe place, she’d go pick it up, and he needed to be left alone.”

Me: “Hmm.”

Lyla: “She wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t know how to get her to leave me alone!”

Me: “She kept following you.”

Lyla: “Yeah! It was so annoying! She wouldn’t go away! So I threw the toad into the swamp grass. Toads are like cats. They always land on their feet. It was probably okay.”

Me: “Hmm.”

Lyla: “…It probably wasn’t good for the toad… But I had to do it! She wouldn’t leave me alone!”

Me: “She just wouldn’t leave you alone.”

Lyla: “It was so annoying. I didn’t know what to do!… But next time I think I would just hide it. I wouldn’t throw it again. It might have hurt it. And I feel really bad that I might have hurt it. I don’t want to do that again.”

And she ran to play with her friends.


And that was it! All my boxes checked, and I didn’t have to come up with anything.

She realized she shouldn’t have thrown it.

She felt guilty for throwing it.

She decided she didn’t want to feel that way next time.

She decided she wouldn’t make that same choice again.

She felt better, maybe even forgave herself (I hope!), and returned to play.

Everything I would have lectured her on, everything I would have tried to get her to say, everything I wanted for her. And she realized and verbalized it all by herself.


Though it’s tough to keep our wisdom to ourselves, and it’s tough to be patient while the wheels of their mind turn, our children need us to give them space and time to practice these important life skills.

And I’d argue that more valuable to them than our wisdom is empowerment:

Empowerment to make mistakes and learn from natural consequences. Empowerment to find solutions on their own, and adjust them when they don’t work. Empowerment to grow at their own pace. Empowerment that they are capable of using their own wisdom.

And when its time to send them off into the real world on their own, they’ll be ready.


(more on learning to listen still to come)

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