Monday, March 28, 2011

Talking and Listening

I have made it a habit to carefully watch my mother as she goes about the business of being a mother, daughter, grandmother, and teacher.  It's only been a conscience effort for the past 10 years or so, but she's been teaching by example my whole life.  I've picked up a lot from her, too, over the years.  

I'm pretty good with children, if I do say so myself.  But my skill pales in comparison to that of my mom.

We call Mom the Toddler Whisperer. Children actually flock to her at parks.  They wave at her, and smile, and offer her bites of their food.  This is an international phenomenon.  When Mom went to China to support my aunt as she was adopting my cousin, a toddler came up to her in a restaurant and started chattering away in Chinese.  Mom had no idea what the little girl was saying, but she did what she always does with children:  She listened.  And smiled.  And made eye contact.  

How often do adults talk around children?  Not "around" as in close proximity, but "around" as in we allow the conversation to flow past the small people, not including them.  How often do adults talk about children as if they're not present?  How often do adults keep the interaction at their own eye level?  And how frustrating must it be to get left out of meaningful human connection?  No wonder children "bother" grown-ups so often.  They just want in on the fun.  

But when adults do take the time to talk to children, I've noticed that very often they talk too much.  Or too quickly, or with unrealistic expectations.  

Below is a "conversation" I overheard between a pre-school teacher and a 20 month old.  I've put what I imagine were the pre-verbal child's thoughts in parentheses.

"Hey, kiddo.  Do you want to paint a firetruck? (Nope, I'm happy playing in the kitchen.)  

Do you?  (Um... still no.)  Come on, come over here and grab a paintbrush!  (But I don't want... oh, ok.)

Put some red paint on it and paint a firetruck! (A what?  Which one's red?)

What does a firetruck say?  Weeeeeee-oooooo, weeeeeee-ooooo!  (Why are you screeching at me?)

Oh, no, don't paint your hand, paint the paper! (Why not?  This stuff feels neat; all slimy and cold.)

We're not doing finger paint today.  (Yes, I am.  See?)

Oh, you got some paint on my shirt.  Say sorry.  We don't paint teachers' shirts! (I was just showing you my red hand.)

Come on, let's wash your hands.  (What?  I thought we were painting today!  I'm not done!)"

I hear variations of this between parents and their children, too.  Please, for the sake of building a strong rapport with your child, slow it down.  Let your child process what you have just said before you say something else.  And use non-verbal communication:  smile while you wait for an answer, tip your head attentively while you listen to that answer, and offer hugs to go with your acceptance of it.

Children are people, too.  Talk with them.  Listen to them.  Show them they are important.  

Because they are.


  1. Bravo! and I couldnt agree more.
    Sometimes I get busy and suddenly feel frustrated that one of my children are not listening but I have usually found that if they are not it was because I wasnt listening to them first.
    stop, get down to their level, make eye contact, then listen.
    Perfect recipe for stopping a building tantrum in its tracks. ; )

    Sounds like you have one great/wise mommy there.

  2. Love it. :) Thanks for sharing!

  3. Agree 100 percent. I find that people are always telling my toddlers, "Careful, you're going to get hurt!" when they should be saying something like, "Hello!" I can't imagine how I would react if people always greeted me with, "Don't fall!" or "Watch your fingers!" Instead of, "Hello!"

  4. This is all so true. I think my first big "a-ha!" moment with this came when I was just routinely asking my daughter what she did that day and before I could jump in and answer for her like I always did, she answered me, even though she was only maybe 20 months or so at the time. I knew felt guilty that I hadn't even been giving her the opportunity to talk to me really by supplying what I thought her answers should be.

    We also had a funny/interesting moment a couple weeks ago to illustrate this again. I was talking to my mom around my daughter who then started trying to talk to me. I just kept talking to my mom though. My daughter then grabbed both my cheeks and asked me to listen to her. She is 2. My husband and I do not do this with her so I have no idea where she got this from but it was a clear sign that she wanted to be heard! I laughed and really stopped to listen to her. I have been really working on this, to not just ignore her but it is also sort of ingrained in me to do that as well.

    I have memories of being ignored as a child as well and it was not a good feeling. I try to remember that feeling and it motivates me to stop and take the time to listen to my child.

  5. What a great reminder...mine is not a toddler yet but I'm sure my own leanings would be to go too fast - I'll be keeping this post in mind! :)