Speaking So They Will Listen

by Clay Gibbons

Dad and son talking and sitting in a hammock

Out of all the parenting tools we have in our toolbox, the most used (and possibly the most valuable!) is our speech. Loving and teaching our children takes place verbally everyday. As James expresses, our tongues can be tools for great edification or terrible grief. Too often we speak hastily, out of untethered emotion, brusquely, or impatiently; the list could continue. There are times that the content of our speech is good and true, yet the delivery is poor and so the message is not received.

After all, communication, like a good round of catch in the backyard, is a two party exercise. There is the sending and the receiving, the speaking and the listening. We could make lists of how our children sin against us as fathers because they are not following the biblical instructions to be good listeners. Yet children are only responsible for half of the arrangement. We as fathers are responsible for the more important half of sending truth. We have the God-given duty as the steward of their souls to “speak the truth in love.” To put it another way: we must tell them the truth, in a loving and careful way, with the intended result that they listen, receive, accept and embed it in their souls.

So then, how can we improve our speaking? Our message may be rejected because we choose a poor time to deliver it or we deliver it in the wrong way. The object here is not to consider what to say, but when and how to say it. Solomon captures this idea well when he says: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Fathers, let us prayerfully identify times when listening is difficult and speak so that our children will listen.

Poor Circumstances

When they are tired:

You would think this point is obvious but I still find myself wanting to talk and attempt to uncover heart attitudes at 10:00 at night when all I see is weariness in their eyes. I need to learn to wait. At 10:00 at night our children don’t have the physical strength to listen well or work through the process of rebuke and repentance. They might be willing, but exhaustion prevents them. Normally, it can wait until morning.

When they have a broken spirit

You might be able to relate to this scenario. For weeks your family has anticipated a big event (match/recital/performance). Your child has been resisting your attempts to help them diligently prepare. Instead, they have delayed and only half-heartedly made an effort. The day comes and they lose the match/fail the audition/flub the recital. Their spirit is deeply bruised and any heart to heart talks might not be welcome.

The emotional response following the let down pushes out their capacity to listen. This seems to be what Moses encountered in Exodus 6:9 when he was bringing good news to an enslaved Israel. The Israelites couldn’t hear it because of their great grief. What might be the better choice? Give it a day or two and then revisit. This also seems to be the approach of Job’s friends (Job 2:13). They chose to sit with him and wait for seven days before speaking.

When they are distracted

Here is another obvious time to avoid that is especially applicable today. Solomon repeatedly calls for his son’s attention; he asks for his son’s ear and mind (Proverbs 4:1–2). It is not a good idea to begin family worship while your child has a video game or tablet in their hands. We have tried to plant the discipline of “stop, look, and listen” when we are giving instruction or having a weighty conversation. We have learned, especially when they are younger, that sometimes if their hands are slightly busy then their minds might be able to focus more on what is being said. For others, their hands must be empty. When trying to speak truth to their little hearts, our goal is to choose a time when we can have their attention without battling outside distractions.

Poor Approach

As fathers we might err by choosing poor times to have deeper discussions, but if you are like me, you might struggle more with speaking truth in a loving way.

Listening before Speaking

A sure way to close the ears of our children is to judge a matter before we hear it (John 7:51). You come upon a scene where you think the child needs a father’s rebuke (which might be true) and the child says, “Wait dad you don’t understand!” I think the loving, scriptural move is to pause and listen. Hear their hurt with love and then correct while speaking to them in love.

Honestly and Gently

If you attended pre-marital counseling you might have been told to avoid using absolutes when you are having a disagreement with your spouse. This is good advice; often in the heat of the moment we tend to exaggerate. As fathers our words carry more weight. When we speak rashly, Scripture compares our tongues to swords (Prov. 12:18). This is not a positive comparison! Our rash words tear their hearts and crush their spirits. Our words fuel their anger and exasperate them. We must be so careful to speak gently and accurately lest we cut their hearts and emotionally push them away.

Speak Softly

One of the first verses we learned as a family was Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath…” This past year, living in the close quarters of a London flat, we have come to view the importance of this verse on an entirely deeper level. We can hear much of our neighbors through shared doors and walls, which means the reverse is true.

We began to think very carefully about the volume of our speech and realized we tended to be quite loud. This was true even when we were not correcting our children but just going about our day as normal. Proverbs 15:1 and 17:27 encourages us to speak with controlled volume and with restraint. Speaking loudly is like smashing a serve in table tennis: it is either missed entirely or smashed in return. While this is fine behavior for table tennis, it is not for a father! Let us speak firmly, with control, yet softly.

Speak Constructively

We fathers tend not to be satisfied with anything less than stellar effort and performance from our children. Maybe this is stereotypical “dad talk”, but think of how often this happens in sports. Your son makes an excellent play in grabbing a hard hit ground ball and instinctively throws to first base, missing the play at third. Too often all we see is the mistake and miss the good. This may be very well intentioned because we know what our children are capable of, and since we are desperate to see them succeed, we continue to be critical.

Dad, don’t miss the times to praise your kids (Proverbs 16:24). Those moments are massive credits in their little hearts. In a conversation with my wife last week I was telling her how proud I was of one of our older sons as he had been kind and supportive to his little brother. She said to me, “You need to tell him that!” I was surprised; yes, I did need to tell him. It’s always easier to talk about someone rather than talk to them. We often praise our children to other dads and maybe even to our wife but not directly to them. Let’s build them up with praise so when it comes time to correct them, their hearts are not depleted.

In all things Christ can save us from our unwise and unloving tongues. He is our example, in knowing how to speak at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. He rebuked strongly in the temple and yet He also welcomed the little ones gently. Let us look to Him as our example and our sanctification. May He sanctify our fatherly speech so our children will listen and receive the truth of God.

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