From the moment a “baby bump” publicly declares a pregnancy to the world, the unsolicited advice is seemingly endless. At times enlightening, but at times an exercise in patience. Everyone suddenly has a PhD in parenting and believes their expertise will be what gets you through the child-rearing adventure. People come out of the woodwork to share their stories and offer their sage wisdom….from passersby in the street to the person standing behind you at the grocery store who may or may not have had any success with their own kids, the experts are present at every turn. And, of course, loved ones you admire and respect immensely are the ones who really help get you to the finish line; for those folks we are all ever grateful.

The truth is, however, that the real teachers are the children themselves. Yes, those unassuming, inexperienced, young people – the ones whose words might be overlooked because of a mindset adults seem to share that we are somehow more “in the know” than they are. “Johnny, be quiet! We’re having adult conversation!”… “Susie, give me a minute, I’m talking to your Aunt Colleen!”….I’m sure any parent can relate to the frequent requests we make of our youth to remain silent as we get through a conversation that is perceived as being more “important.”

It was long before I became a mother myself that I realized the greatest piece of advice for any parent is really quite simple: remember the importance of listening to to your children if you want to connect and gain true insight into life, humanity, and love.

After graduating from college, I volunteered at a shelter in Alaska. It was designed for women and children who had been the victims of devastating domestic violence. As a facilitator for the children’s support group, I had the chance to really LISTEN to what these kids had to share. And I discovered that although small in size, they had big dreams and philosophies. Their bright lights kept shining in spite of all of the darkness they had endured. As I listened, I heard them speak from the heart. No inhibitions. No worries about the perception of others as they spoke. No concerns about social status, degrees held, or professional accomplishment. Just heartfelt truth, candid feedback, sincere feelings, honest observations. They had so many answers to questions that were previously unresolved. And they sparked inside of me a desire to listen more deeply to our youth. It was the best lesson I could learn before becoming a parent – greater than any expertise anyone shared with me once they realized I was going to be a mom.

When I had my first child, I tried to remember to listen. Actively listen. Go beyond “hearing” my kids. I wanted to absorb what they were saying, process it, and truly empathize. I wanted to FEEL what it was they were experiencing, and knew I could only do so by listening in the same way I had done with that children’s support group. Whether it be which cry is which or who was nice or mean on the playground, it all mattered. I was fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom and eventually got a part time job that allowed me to be there when the kids got home from school to ask, “How was your day?” And I knew the most important thing I could do was to listen – really listen – to their response.

Some say that the middle child tends to get overlooked. In some ways, this was true for our middle child Cam. And when our youngest, Owen, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder just before age 2, my ability to listen to Cam and to our eldest, Gracie, was tested in a way I never anticipated.

Owen’s issues “screamed” out at us all day long as we worked fervently to get as much speech, occupational therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis, and vitamins into him. We were open to doing whatever we needed to do to bring him back to us. But sometimes that meant not being able to listen as deeply to the needs of his siblings.

Yes, it’s true: unfortunately, siblings of children with autism often have to do with less. Less sports, as we can’t get to practices. Fewer playdates because of Owen’s daily after school therapy sessions. And when time and space permit for their friends to visit, they’re faced with the inevitable pain of questions like: “Why is your brother so weird?” (Our autism looks very different from TV and movies).

Fortunately, doing with less gives you a greater appreciation for both little and big things–such as a trip to the mall without a meltdown, riding all the escalators, or a much-needed vacation when Grandma is able to jump in. Owen, now 18, hasn’t been on an airplane since he was 2.

As we moved through his childhood, we realized the power of listening went beyond the day-to-day exchanges with Gracie, Cam, and Owen. We had to listen deeply to what was happening in our home – to the quiet call for greater opportunities for Owen. This was a call that couldn’t be verbalized but was loud and clear; something that was very, very hard to “hear”. But I knew deep down that listening to my children was the most important lesson I had learned about being a good parent, and I knew that even if this call came with tremendous heartache, I needed to listen.

So, when Owen was 13, we made the very difficult decision to place him in a residential school: Anderson Center for Autism. Despite the pain attached to that decision, Owen has grown in more ways than we ever dreamed possible thanks to Anderson. I was very blessed that my daughter Gracie went to college just 15 minutes away from Owen. They were not close at home but, both away at school, they bonded. Cam blossomed when Owen left. He began volunteering at the local fire department and became a trained EMS. He is also a lifeguard and became the “autism specialist,” using skills he learned with Owen – one example is the use of a timer to let a child know it was time to transition out of the pool.

Having a child with autism….no, having children is difficult. Autism, of course, adds an additional challenge. But with it comes a perspective and appreciation for big and little things for the whole family – and perhaps a heightened awareness of the importance of paying close attention to needs.

And, although Owen has minimal language, I have learned that listening deeply to him and to all three of my children is the key to giving them a wonderful childhood – and ultimately, to being the best parent I could be.

So that’s the advice I’ll give the next time I see a mom-to-be in the produce section at the grocery store. “Throw away the books, don’t let people pass judgement. Just LISTEN to your kids and they’ll do great.”