A few weeks ago, my husband and I found ourselves in a rare situation: The toddler and the preschooler were happily playing a game together—no arguing over toys, no fighting over turns—and there was no end in sight.
I realized my husband and I could have an uninterrupted adult conversation during the daylight hours. It was thrilling!
I quickly made two cups of tea, and we sat across from each other in our kitchen—within earshot but out of sight of our kids. While they laughed in the background, I shared with my husband that I was worried about an upcoming work project, and asked for his advice on making some frightening career-related decisions.
Ten minutes later the kids appeared asking for snacks, so we wrapped up our conversation and moved on.
Imagine my surprise when…
The following morning, my pajama-clad 5-year-old sat cross-legged on our bed, watching me put on my jewelry before heading to work.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he said: “Are you scared to go to work today, Mommy?”
“Scared to go to work? What do you mean?”
“Yesterday you told Daddy you were scared about your work.”
Ahhhhhhhh, yes, I did. But I had no idea little ears that seemed to be pre-occupied heard every word of it.
Kids are always listening
That morning was the reminder I needed that kids are always listening to what we say—even when it appears they’re totally engrossed in playing or absorbed in a television show.
It’s an eye-opening realization that can be a bit paralyzing. I am NEVER letting my guard down until my kids are in bed. And even then, only if I can hear them snoring!
But such a strict approach actually isn’t a good idea. In reality, the fact that our kids pick up on everything can be a really wonderful thing!
Why? Because when our children overhear us having adult conversations, they’re learning valuable lessons about what it means to be a responsible grown-up.
We can preach to our kids until the sun goes down, but the way we live our lives is far more powerful. Through our adult conversations that we allow our kids to overhear, we’re educating them in the way they learn best—by seeing us walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Ready to enable some selective eavesdropping in your family? Here are five adult conversations you should definitely let your kids overhear—plus five you really shouldn’t.
You should let your child overhear you…
1. Disagreeing with your partner.
Disagreements with your partner or spouse are not only inevitable, but also healthy. (If you’re never disagreeing, then you’re probably never talking about anything of value or weight.)
It might come as a surprise that you don’t have to hide these discussions from your children. In fact, kids desperately need to see what it looks like for partners to disagree and work through it in a way that’s (and here’s the important part!) RESPECTFUL.
I’m talking statements like “I understand where you’re coming from, but I’d like us to consider this instead…” or “I’m feeling frustrated because of this, and I want to find a solution that works for both of us.”
Even from the next room over, our kids can learn how to work through a disagreement while still showing love and care for the other person.
But never let them overhear you disrespecting your partner.
Raised voices. Sarcasm. Contempt. Shame. Guilt trips. These things are super scary for kids because they threaten their feelings of family stability. We adults understand that in the heat of the moment we say things we don’t really mean, but for kids that’s confusing and frightening.
2. Talking honestly about your fears and struggles.
We talk a lot about the “mirage of perfection” people put up on social media. Perfect jobs. Perfect families. Perfect lives.
But what about the mirage we create for our kids?
Many of us try to hide every little bump in life from our children because we don’t want them to worry. But the truth is, even if you never talk about the stresses of life in front of your children, they’re picking up on it. They know full well when Mommy is anxious or when Daddy is frustrated.
So don’t wait until they’re in bed to work through some of those issues. Share openly about the challenges you’re facing (in an age-appropriate way, of course!) and then be sure to follow up so your kids can learn how you ultimately persevered.
But never let them overhear you freaking out over truly deep concerns.
Things like serious money problems, the possibility of divorce, or other issues that pose a threat to their security. If you’re battling these things, it’s important to talk to your kids about them directly—but only when the time is right and you can choose your words carefully. In the face of these struggles, your kids need you to be calm and reassuring, not panicking.
3. Complimenting them to another adult.
Want to boost your child’s self-esteem in an instant? Let them overhear you saying something positive about them, rather than to them.
A single indirect compliment is worth more than a million direct ones.
That’s because kids are more likely to believe our praise when it’s said to someone else. It feels more genuine that way.
So the next time you’re chatting on the phone to Grandpa when your daughter’s within earshot, slip in a comment about how brave she was at her swimming lesson last week. Yes, you already told her that to her face several times, but this will be even better.
But never let them overhear you criticizing them to another adult.
We just established that kids are more likely to believe the good things you say about them when they’re said to someone else. The same is true for negative stuff. Children will internalize the unfavorable comments they overhear through eavesdropping, and their confidence levels may plummet as a result.
4. Saying “no.”
So you’re a people-pleaser? You’re in good company. Lots of parents—and moms in particular—have such a strong desire to make other people happy that they spend years feeling over-worked, over-committed, and overwhelmed.
Not exactly what we want to be modeling for our children.
Saying “no” is essentially about defining our boundaries and prioritizing what really matters in life. It’s a key part of the Pick Any Two motto! We can do anything…but not everything.
Let your kids overhear you politely declining to chair the PTA next year or lead the Book Fair committee, and you just might save them from a lifetime of trying to please others rather than themselves.
But never let them overhear you saying “YES!” in public and then grumbling about it in private.
(Guilty as charged right here.)
That kind of two-faced behavior only reinforces the idea that our main job is to make other people like us—even at the expense of our own well being.
5. Reacting thoughtfully to current events.
A friend of mine once said that she completely stopped watching and reading the news because it was too terrible for her children. She wanted to shield them from all that evil as much as possible.
I see her point, but I disagree.
First, we have to acknowledge the privilege ingrained in that statement. If you can simply shield your children from those harsh realities, it’s only because you don’t have to personally face them. But with that privilege comes a responsibility to help make life better for those more vulnerable than you.
Second, I think we parents have a duty to teach our children how to be informed, engaged citizens of the world—and the best way to do that, of course, is to be informed, engaged citizens ourselves.
That’s why I don’t think it’s bad for our kids to overhear us talking about politics, the news, and current events—as long as we’re doing so in a way that is respectful and open-minded.
But never let them overhear you engaging in divisive attacks, or rehashing terrifying details.
I know it’s seems unfathomable in today’s climate, but it is possible to talk politics without ripping other people to shreds. But if that’s all you got, don’t do it when the kids are nearby.
Likewise, while it’s good to talk honesty about scary events in the world, it’s not good to give our children nightmares. You know your children best, so you can make wise choices about what to include and what to leave out when they might overhear you.