That was a trick question, the obvious answer is ‘well, duh, yes of course we should listen to children.’
We should listen to children very carefully. By carefully, I mean that in the way we listen we should take care not to feed children our own adult interpretations and assumptions, or influence them into our own agenda. That also means taking care not to add the huge burden of adult feelings to the mix: all that anxiety, worry and concern which communicates so clearly to a child that this is a massive problem. We need to stay neutral, which means that the most careful listening can actually appear to be the most careless.
I’ve noticed that people can sometimes confuse listening with agreeing, believing or having to go along with what someone wants, but of course listening isn’t synonymous with these things. I can listen to you and still disagree with what you say and I can listen but still decide not to do what you are asking of me. I am also not obliged to believe you or agree with you when I have information which you don’t know; in fact as a parent it’s my obligation to share that with my child.
Children are confused on this issue too: a child may shout ‘You never listen to me!’ when what they mean, perhaps, is ‘You’re not giving me what I want’ or ‘You’re not always persuaded by my arguments.’
If we have to listen to children, which we most definitely do these days, it’s the law (and I’d say it’s a good thing to do when we can), then we need to be clear about what it is. Otherwise we end up feeling obliged to do those other things and we feel guilty about not being a good enough parent if we don’t.
So, for example, listening to a child’s account of an argument doesn’t mean we have to agree with her judgement about her friend and that all her feelings about it are the correct ones, nor automatically believe her version of events; it means giving her a bit of space to vent those initially intense feelings so that she’s able to process them, and perhaps reach a more balanced conclusion herself.
Listening to a child who really doesn’t want to go to the after-school club he’s booked into doesn’t mean we have to agree with his solution that he doesn’t have to go. It means accepting his present-moment feeling about it but trusting that he’s capable of getting over it.
It may be of course that we sometimes end up agreeing with a child, believing them, or doing the thing they want us to do. That’s not listening though, listening is the bit that comes before we make those kinds of decisions. We should definitely do more of that.