I’d like to be a little more serene about holding my tongue than I am.
Take the other day. My seven-year-old had a difficult interaction with another kid at choir practice. She felt angry and annoyed.
She sat in the back seat; up front, I signaled a lane change to get to the freeway onramp.
As she complained, I thought about how to help her. With my guidance, surely she’d come up with kind and firm responses.
But I stopped myself—a habit I began with my ten-year-old a few years before. I ask permission before I offer solutions.
“Do you want to just tell me how you feel, or do you want advice?” I said, not adding, Because I have opinions.
“Just listen,” she said, her voice full of kind firmness.
I glanced at the rearview mirror. “You sure, honey?” I said. “Because I could talk to Miss—“
“Just listen,” she said, even more firmly, and perhaps less kindly. “I’m fine.”
I opened my mouth and shut it. Her end of the conversation was over, but I felt like I’d never gotten the chance to start mine. It flustered me.
Didn’t she want my help?
With a sigh, I accepted she did not. I zoomed our car onto the cloverleaf curve of the onramp and accelerated into traffic.
Breathe, I told myself. Just breathe.
It was important to respect her wishes, even though it went against my pride and just a smidge of my mother-hen instinct.
Why I Ask Permission Before I Give Advice
You ever hear that common marital argument—often split on gender lines—when one person shares about a struggle they faced during their day, only to have their partner jump in with a fix?
The standard marital-therapy response is listen, don’t fix. Very often, the person sharing doesn’t want advice, but a listening ear.
My husband is actually pretty savvy on this front, but I’ve experienced that dynamic in other relationships. It really irks me. I want to be heard, but end up feeling like the other person is simply waiting to give their opinion.
I know it’s done out of a desire to help. But rather than building me up, it makes me less likely to share. I prefer to have people ask before they advise me.
But with the tables turned, I struggle to listen well.
Jesus was an expert at this type of humble listening. He waits for his disciples to follow him before he presumes to speak deeply into their lives. The woman at the well asks his opinion several times before he tells the truth about her problems. Even with his critics’ questions, Jesus is as likely to respond with a story as a direct rebuke.
With deep skill, Jesus draws those around him into deeper trust. He listens to their experiences and questions with great empathy and respect. I long to do the same with my kids.
But like I said, it doesn’t come naturally.
As my oldest moved out of toddlerhood and grew more emotionally mature, I noticed a dynamic I didn’t like. When she faced a dilemma, I’d offer a (completely brilliant!) suggestion. She’d turn away, uninterested in sharing more.
After a few of these exchanges, a bell went off in my head.
I was doing that thing I hated to my own kid.
What if I ask before I fix? I wondered.
I’ll be honest: It made me really nervous to try. I felt sure she’d never seek my opinion—and go wildly astray without my guidance. But I decided to give it a whirl.
What Changed With Permission
The first few times I asked whether my oldest wanted any suggestions, she told me she didn’t. Like my youngest, she just wanted me to hear her out.
But one night, she surprised me.
“I want your advice,” she said.
I felt tremendously honored. I had earned a respect I hadn’t realized I yearned for.
Suddenly, my worries about losing my authority with her flew out of the window. Before, my advice didn’t really get heard. Now, she actively sought it.
It was a game-changer.
The Difference Between Permissiveness and Permission
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t ask permission to discipline my kids. When they cross boundaries or break rules, I respond with appropriate consequences.
But disciplinary situations are different than them sharing their struggles. I want to create an environment where they know I will hear them.
If I jump in with judgment every time they share, they’ll simply avoid telling me what I don’t want to hear.
I’m sure as they grow older, I’ll have to discern when ‘permission’ morphs into ‘permissiveness’. But I suspect open lines of communication are even more important when my kids can make serious mistakes.
Consider how the writers of the Psalms freely express ugly emotions. God can handle hearing complete honesty from His children because He wants a relationship of intimacy, not false fronts.
Why shouldn’t I seek the same at home?
What Asking Permission Communicates
I still need practice in the deep listening I hope to offer my daughters, but as I do, I see tremendous fruit.
Asking permission before I give advice:
- Communicates that I think my kids are capable of solving complex problems on their own.
- Reminds me that my style of responding to struggles might not be right for them.
- Shows them the cause and effect of their values more clearly than if I protect them from every wrong turn.
- Encourages them to intentionally seek my counsel.
- Helps us practice communication that will still work when they’re grown up.
- Models healthy boundaries, which protects them against abusive or unhealthy relationships.
After a few years of learning to listen, I honestly admire my kids’ interpersonal skills. It’s exciting to see how their own internal guidance systems help them choose well. And I feel so grateful that they trust me to hear their real, unvarnished woes.
It turns out that biting my tongue with my kids doesn’t keep them from hearing me. On the contrary—listening well means I can participate my daughters’ stories more deeply than I ever thought possible.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.