What Does it Mean to Listen to Children?

Listening is recognized as one of the fundamental rights of children and adolescents, as expressed in Articles 12 and 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Listening to young children is easily overlooked within the family, school, and community contexts, which undermines the ability of young children to meaningfully participate in matters that are important to them. 

In an interview with Families Canda staff, Dr. Stefania Maggi, Carleton University Professor, Educator, and Researcher shares her insights on what listening to children means. 


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to be listened to and taken seriously. What does this mean for people who work with children? 

The principles expressed in the Convention are easily understood and make intuitive sense, especially for people who work with children and youth. However, it is not always clear what needs to be done to uphold these principles. This is where a deeper understanding of what listening and taking seriously mean, especially in the context of a professional practice. 

To listen to children, means recognizing that they have something to say. It means acknowledging their expressive capacity. And it implies familiarity with the many ways that children with developing language skills, as well as older children, use to communicate. Seeing children as competent communicators is necessary to activate empathic listening. Therefore, an important first step for professionals wanting to enhance their listening skills when interacting with young children, is to reflect upon their own expectations about the communicative capacities of children. 

To take children seriously, on the other hand, implies respect for the child as an individual who can form views of the world based on their unique experiences. Anyone who possesses the ability to perceive the world through their senses, regardless of their age, has the capacity for interaction with the physical and social worlds. The perspectives that children may form through those interactions are dependent on a multitude of factors, such as, for example, individual predispositions but also socio-political, economic, and cultural dimensions. To take them seriously when they share their perspectives in their own unique ways means to be sensitive to the context in which these perspectives have been created, and to honour their points of view, regardless of our own worldviews or expectations. 


What would happen if all children were listened to? What would the impact be on children, families, and society? 

The concept of listening is deceivingly simple. You would be hard pressed to find someone arguing against the importance of listening to one another. However, many of the problems we face today both in the context of our personal relationships, and at work and in society at large, may be in part exacerbated by our limited capacity for active empathic listening.  

If we consistently used active empathic listening when interacting with children of all ages, not only will they themselves develop this important skill, but they would also benefit in all areas of their development. Active empathic listening can support the optimal development of children while contributing to the growth of compassionate, open-minded, and respectful individuals that possess the socio-emotional skills required to thrive in their personal and professional lives and positively contribute to society at large. 


What skills can people build to help them more effectively listen to children and take them seriously? 

To be effective, active empathic listening must come from a place of self-awareness, respect, and open-mindedness. Science teaches us that there are proven strategies most likely to contribute to positive outcomes in the children we practice active empathic listening with. But these strategies can only work when they are founded on a genuine respect for the child.  

In a society that is founded on systems developed for and by adults, being authentic about our respect for children, and behaving consistently with such respect, may not come easy. Furthermore, our cultural and socialization practices may have influenced our own views of what childhood is or should be, and these views may be unconsciously affecting how we interact with children. 

Therefore, it is recommended that any active empathic listening training begin with mindfulness and self-awareness of our own values, attitudes, and beliefs about who children are what role they play in their lives and society at large. This self-awareness will prepare us for the next steps, which will involve learning more about the communicative capacities of children of different ages, and how to apply science informed strategies for effective active empathic listening in our day-to-day practice. 


Want to learn more? Join Families Canada, Dr. Stefania Maggi and Dr. Sebastiano Pocchi at our new webinar series, Active Empathic Listening for Professionals. The webinar series introduces professionals who interact with young people and their families to the concept of Active Empathic Listening (AEL) and provides evidence-based information on the life-changing impact of this dimension of human communication on many aspects of a child’s development.  

You won’t want to miss all 4 webinars in this 4-part series! Click on the titles below to register for the upcoming webinars. 

April 27, 2023: How to Bring Your Listening Skills to the Next Level
May 25, 2023: How to Have Life Changing Conversations with Young Children
June 22, 2023: How to Nurture Empathy in Conversation with Young Children
July 27, 2023: How to Empower Young Children with Constructive Criticism