Parent Tips: The Magic of Real Listening

By Greg Baer M.D.

October 23, 2023


Look at all the difficult things kids do: whiningangerfightinganxietyaddiction to phones and video gamesfailure in school, rebellion, lack of responsibilitydepressioneating disordersporn—you know, all that kid stuff that destroys their happiness. 

These behaviors kill them emotionally, spiritually, in relationships. And it makes US pretty crazy too.

What can we do about all those behaviors? A LOT, it turns out. More than anything, as much as air and water, our children need our unconditional love—love without disappointment or irritation—which few of US as parents have ever seen.

Powerful First Step: Listening

It takes a while to learn to love unconditionally, but I can tell you one powerful first step: LISTENING. On the whole, we parents listen very poorly. We PEOPLE listen poorly.

I’ve worked with thousands of families, and kids who are behaving badly UNIFORMLY report that nobody listens to them.

I’ve worked in prisons, and the inmates ALWAYS say there was nobody to listen to them.

AND I’ve observed that kids who DO feel like their parents listen to them uniformly do not have nearly the problems other kids do.

What Listening Looks Like

Listening is that important. What does listening look like?

One day I was talking to a mother who was having a lot of the troubles we just mentioned with her children. You’ve experienced many of them yourself.

She wanted to understand WHY the problems persisted, no matter what she tried.

During the course of a video call with her, I heard her four-year old son say “Mom” on six different occasions, using a different tone of voice each time, all within a few minutes.

When the child walked away, I asked her if she knew what her son had said to her each time he said the word “Mom.”

She said, “What do you mean?”

“Exactly my point,” I said. “You’re missing what your child is saying to you. With a single word—Mom—he’s already saying a lot, and you’re missing it.”

Listening to the Tones of Voice

She asked me to teach her, so I translated the tones of his voice. I will not attempt to accurately re-create the perfect tones of a child, but I CAN understand them, and I can give you examples of what a child means with a single word.

First Tone 

I told her that the first time he said, “Mom,” he was saying, “Mom, Are you listening? Do I have your attention? Can I keep talking and have any hope that you’ll hear me?”

“Why is it important,” I said, “to nail the meaning of that tone? Because if you don’t understand it, you’ll completely botch the communication.

“What if somebody came up to you and said, ‘I’m completely lost. Where is Walnut Avenue?’ And you responded with, ‘I think spinach would work better in that salad than iceberg lettuce.’

“That would be utterly confusing and dismissive to the person who needed your attention, wouldn’t it? Our children are just as confused, and feel just as dismissed, when we fail to understand what they’re saying.

If you had understood that first tone of ‘Mom,’ what WOULD you have done instead of half-listening to him? You would have eagerly turned away from the screen where you were talking to me. You would have lit up like sunrise and said something like, ‘Wow, you came to see me? What did you come to tell me?’”

Mom said, “But wouldn’t that be rude to you?”

“Oh, that’s my problem. If I found your child’s interruptions inconvenient, I would just schedule a call at a better time. But you’re using me as an excuse. You ignore his tone a lot—when I’m not there. He’s used that tone many times before with you, and you’ve mumbled something useless while you were thinking about something else, or watching a movie, or whatever.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know you, and I know the problems you’re having with your kids. If you had established well-worn patterns of really listening to them, they wouldn’t be having these problems. And you don’t feel loved enough—you’re not happy enough—to be that kind of listener.”

Mom looked deflated by all this information. “Relax, kid,” I said. “Nobody every taught you how to listen. Nobody ever listened TO YOU long enough that you would feel the love you would then give to your children. I’m not criticizing you. I’m giving you exactly what you need to love and teach your kids.” 

Second Tone 

Mom now looked a little encouraged—just a little—and asked me to tell her about the other five tones I had heard. So I told her about the second occurrence of “Mom”: It meant, “Mom, I am so eager to share something with you. I want to share what my curious little mind and body just discovered.”

Third Tone

Third? Mom, I’m feeling loved by you.” That feeling didn’t last long, but it was there in the tone.

Fourth Tone 

Fourth? Big change: I’m angry that you’re not giving me your full attention right now.”

Fifth Tone

Fifth? Mom, I love it when you listen to me, even when I have to work at it.”

Sixth Tone

Sixth? “Mom: I’m done now. Bye.”

With each tone translation, I also told Mom how she would have responded to her son with her new understanding of him.

The Results of Real Listening

Weeks later, after searching the RealLoveParents website, and studying the Training, Mom called me and said, “I cannot believe the difference. My kids WANT to be around me. They’re acting out WAY less. We have a long way to go, but I finally have hope that I can be a real mother.”

Real listening can have a miraculous effect on nearly everyone but especially children. With our children we are literally creating brain pathways that tend to govern the rest of their lives. 

If we don’t listen deeply and consistently to them, they see the world as a harsh, uncaring, and lonely place. They feel isolated. They don’t feel loved, so they WILL be in pain, and then they learn to respond with all those destructive behaviors we talked about, to protect themselves and to numb their pain. All these effects because we didn’t know how to listen—or love.

Do you want to learn how to really listen to your children, regardless of their age? It’s never too late to try. Go to RealLoveParents.com and learn how.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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