Alright, let’s be the loving, logical, practical adults we want everyone to believe we are.
You want the best for your child, and you want your child to be the best – in at least one area of achievement. You’d like to help her take the correct path and avoid obstacles. This means a formidable list of Do-s and Don’t-s (creative grammar, I know 🙂 ).
What if you got just one option – your child can go with either the Do-s or the Don’t-s? Hmmm.
Lots of parents would choose the Don’t-s. For instance, if you’re talking about food and nutrition, it is probably easier (and definitely more valuable!) to say “Don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t have more than 2 pegs of alcohol a day (if this is what you want to say)” than it is to say “Be sure to eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables (these should include all color families…, eat both raw and cooked vegetables except for … which should not be cooked and … which should not be eaten raw, remember tomato is technically a fruit, avocados can’t be included in greens, and…), 3 servings of dairy,…”.
You know your child won’t remember a tenth of what you’re going to tell him. Might as well make it short, so you decide to stick with the Don’t-s.
Great! Why don’t you begin making a list right now?
If you’re anything like me, you’d probably have 50 things on your list in less than 10 minutes.
My daughter would faint if she read the above sentence. She’d faint, because she and all her friends believe I am one of the most easy-going parents around. I agree with her (and them). 🙂 I can make the list, but I’m also very good at editing this list down to one or two things.
These one or two things are my NO-s. I have them down pat, and every time I’m tempted to say NO (or “Don’t!”), I go back to my list and cross-check:
– Has been eating sugar through the meal, and is looking to overdose on chocolate for dessert. Asking for permission. Say NO? (Does it go against my NO?) No. “Sure – go ahead!”
“Oh, Mom, you’re the best!” (I’m rolling my eyes.)
– Has gone ballistic over some ridiculous detail. Screaming so loudly I can’t hear myself think. Follows me so she can vent fully (and I can’t get away!). Give her a piece of my mind? No point – she ain’t listening anyway. So I duck till the storm has passed. In a bit, she’ll calm down, come over and apologize. And I’ll tell her she doesn’t need to be sorry.
I really think she doesn’t need to apologize, and here’s why I think it:
1. I’m her mom – if she can’t acknowledge and give in to how she’s feeling even when she’s with me, what’s the point of being family? If I don’t give her the space and time to vent, where will she get it? This time and space is what makes a bunch of people in a house a family.
2. Venting is good for health – she’s letting it all out safely and she will feel better after having done so. Suppressing how you really feel creates all kinds of physical and mental problems – simply not worth it. And if I’m listening, I’ll get a chance to understand what she’s thinking and feeling.
3. She learns – each time she blows something out of proportion, I am matter-of-fact about it. I don’t ask her to stop throwing a tantrum, I don’t yell back at her… As a result, when she cools down, she herself thinks about what happened and why it happened. We might talk about it or not. And the next time around, she has more perspective. The result is delightful and twofold: if she freaks about the same thing, the intensity is lower than it was earlier; and she freaks about bigger, more important things. Either way, she’s growing, and growing well. Oh, joy! 🙂
4. Love in action – It’s easy to be loving and accepting when things are going well. If you can be loving and accepting even when your instinct is to run screaming from him, he’s experiencing love in action. He will notice this. And it will give him the confidence to be who he is – assured that he is no less worthy of love because he is not all ‘good’. He will be less vulnerable to manipulation by people and circumstances. That’s what I want for my child. I’m sure that is precisely what you want for your child.
5. Someday, somewhere, it will out – If your child doesn’t vent at home, he will vent somewhere with someone. Who knows what might come of this?
6. Risk avoidance – I have seen so many children – and adults – leading heavily controlled lives: always making the right noises, having the right reaction in the right proportion, doing what is expected of them. Till one day, the smallest trigger completely derails them, and then it takes a good long while for them to get back on track – if at all they do. Better by far to let off steam as one goes along, and chug along the track of your own choice.
So she doesn’t need to apologize for losing her temper. For the longest time, she didn’t believe me when I said it. But over the years, as we’ve lived the reality of it, she’s beginning to get it.
I gain in innumerable ways from having very little on my NO list:
I. The list is easy to remember – and abide by! 🙂
II. She shares freely with me – her thoughts, ideas and what goes on in her life, because she doesn’t need to worry about which NOs she has transgressed. Our communication is based in reality.
III. When I say NO, she listens – no, not obeys, but it’s enough that she listens! 🙂 (She must make her own mistakes and learn from them – one of the hardest lessons for a parent.)
IV. We share a great relationship – both of us actively choosing to spend time with each other. And we enjoy ourselves!
V. I can go up in smoke too! 🙂 And I do.
Well, what are you waiting for? Make your list of NO-s, edit it, communicate it, and then sit back and be a carefree parent…
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
I was in high school, having a conversation with my English teacher on parents hitting their children. She had two kids, the younger of whom was 2 years old.
“I would never, ever hit my kids,” I said, sure of my stand. (I was a teenager, so it’s obvious I knew it all! 🙂 )
“Vinita, when your child is putting her finger in a live electrical socket, and doesn’t heed your warnings to be cautious, the only way to get through to her is to smack her hard. Do it a few times, and she’ll learn.”
I still disagreed.
“Well, how would you go about ensuring she doesn’t get an electric shock?” my teacher asked.
“I don’t know exactly how, but I will never, ever raise my hand to my child,” I reiterated.
She wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to get through to my child, and I was adamant that I’d find a way that didn’t involve hitting.
About a dozen years later, I’d just put a mug of piping hot tea on the living room table for my husband, who hadn’t yet entered the room. My 8-month old was trying to pull herself off the floor into a standing position using the table as support. Yes, the same table that held the piping hot mug of tea. She stood up, and reached a hand out towards the mug from which the steam curled enticingly upwards.
I don’t think any parent I know would do what I did next. I held her hand, and dipped the tip of one of her fingers into the hot liquid – just for a split second. As I did it, I said, “Hot! NO!”
Her hand was out of the tea and she was in my arms as I rushed her towards a cold water faucet before she even realized the pain fully. She looked into my eyes, hers wide with unshed tears. “That was HOT tea,” I repeated. “We don’t touch hot things. NO!”
I think she was fine after I’d put enough cold water on her finger. At any rate, I don’t remember any ill-effects after the event.
But there were numerous ‘good’ effects. Madam (thus respectfully do I allude to my almost-teenager who checks out my posts and is overwhelmingly generous with her comments 😉 ; which are mostly some variation of “Mom, you’re crazy!” 🙂 I told you – she knows everything! 🙂 ) never tried to fling herself off staircases, windows and balconies, or insert various parts of herself into electrical sockets or gadgets (microwave, toaster, vacuum cleaner etc.).
I didn’t child-proof my house. I had delicate crystal all over the place, and it stayed there. She learnt that there were places to play and places not to play. Some people feel that this might be because she is a girl (“Girls listen, but boys are so naughty! They simply run wild, you know!…”), but I’ve discovered that’s not true.
I have friends, men, who were as athletic and devil-may-care in their childhood as any boy could be, whose parents even today proudly display delicate china and crystal they have collected over decades – just as they did when the kids were little. All because they managed to teach their children the meaning of NO. 🙂
I thought of my conversation with the English teacher years after the hot tea incident. I’m not so sure any longer whether I proved my point or not. I certainly did not hit my daughter, but dunking her finger in hot tea is also violence of a kind, so I don’t know what to think.
But I am sure about 2 things: I feel bad that she had to suffer that momentary pain, and I am convinced I did the right thing. You may wonder at my ability to reconcile these apparently conflicting ideas, but it makes perfect sense to me. I saved myself – and her – a lot of trouble, heartache and conflict by getting her to understand NO so simply and directly.
I have no guilt about it; quite the contrary – I’m rather pleased I solved a potential problem before it even arose! I am not rationalizing the incident saying, “I did it for her – so that she wouldn’t hurt or injure herself in the future…” That was a side-benefit.
I did it for me. I did it because there was no way I could parent one kid and one puppy, cook, clean, run a household for us, and stay married to a husband with health issues and insane hours at work. But even if I’d been having a cushy life with ‘nothing’ to do, I’d still have chosen to do what I did. It was short, simple, direct, and effective.
If you’re still reading this, you might be appalled, and trying to come up with your own way of teaching your child the meaning of NO. That’s great! 🙂 The only way that will work with your child is the way that comes naturally to you – the way that you feel is right for you.
The ‘hot tea’ kind of one-time teaching obviously works when your child is really young, too young even to remember such an incident.
But what if your child is past that age? How can you teach him the meaning of NO?
The best time to start is now.
The best way to start is to pick only one NO. Suppose you want to cure your child of 15 ‘bad’ habits he has. Add to these 6 ways to ‘improve’ him or the way he does things. (Look at yourself! And you expect your child to listen to you! Get real 🙂 ) Of these 21 possible projects, pick only 1. That is your NO.
Maybe you pick ‘NO TV at dinnertime’. It has to be iron-clad; it has to be repeated and reinforced endlessly; you have to live it; you have to be the role model – no exceptions. Oscar Awards live on TV? Move dinner time so you’re done before the telecast begins. Wimbledon finals? Move dinner time. Not possible? Switch off the TV when a commercial break starts, serve and eat dinner, and begin watching after dinner is done.
They’re showing a documentary you’ve been trying to get hold of for years? Record it; or do dinner at a different time. No exceptions. Not if someone is ill. Not if there are guests over. (What kind of host are you anyway to have people over for dinner and then plonk them in front of the TV while you all eat? 🙂 )
After all, you’re teaching your child the meaning of the word NO. You’d better demonstrate that you know the meaning yourself!
An open secret about the word NO: the more sparingly you use it, the more effective it is. More tomorrow…
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
A bunch of parents are standing around at the school social, discussing their tots. Listening to them, you’d think there was a competition on to identify the most troublesome child. One dad complains of how long his daughter takes to eat a sandwich. As he finishes, a mother pipes up saying he should count his blessings, because she can’t even get her son to sit at the table! As each parent contributes his / her story, they seem to be vying for the gold medal called “Parent of the Most Demanding Child”.
Into this conversation steps another parent, who says, “I’m very lucky. My son is so caring – the other day I had a headache, and he let me have a quiet lie-in. He even remembered not to play his new drums so that I could rest”.
Immediately, the tide turns. Each parent starts narrating how their child is so kind, helpful, loving, generous, talented, wonderful… Now the parents are competing for the title ‘Parent of the Best Child’!
It makes me wonder: are these the same parents with the same children? How come their assessment of their child changes like quicksilver? How does the child switch from being the devil incarnate to a being of sweetness and light in the space of a millisecond?
You too probably have this kind of schizophrenic reaction to your child. I think this happens because we are so used to thinking of the small-sized (at least earlier, if not any longer! 🙂 ) people that live in our homes as ‘our’ children. Of course, in one sense, they are our children; not other people’s. But when we think of them as ours, we treat them as if they were our arms, beds, clothes, ideas etc. In other words, we treat them as if they were our belongings, things that belong to us the way our possessions do.
But they don’t belong to us: they are individuals in their own right.
When you look at your child and think “This is my child”, you are missing the individual that he is: the traits, quirks, attitudes, thoughts and reactions that make him unique. Instead, you look at some kind of clone-like creature, who resembles you in some ways, your partner in others, and people from the family in yet other ways. When you notice a facial feature, expression, behavior pattern, attitude that you can’t immediately trace to someone in the family, you think “I wonder who / where he got that from!”
Never do you think: “He is who he is – himself.”
How many times has someone made a comment on your child’s behavior or paid her a compliment, and you’ve been taken aback?
“I didn’t know she was so imaginative,” you think, when you read the short story she wrote in English class.
“I didn’t know he could be so thoughtful and hospitable,” you think, when your mother praises how well your son looked after her in your absence.
Sure she has her faults and foibles, but she has some phenomenal attributes too, which you tend to miss because you think she is ‘yours’, and you look upon her as an ‘improvement project’.
I’ve heard so many parents say:
“Sure, he’s a great guy, but so careless! If only I could teach him to be slightly more careful…”
“She’s wonderful, but if only she studied on her own. I have to sit with her everyday…”
You see what I mean by ‘improvement project’?
How many times, when someone has complimented you or your child, have you accepted the comment gracefully? Hardly ever, I’m guessing. Usually, you feel compelled to qualify it by pointing out some ‘negative’ quality / feature of your child that you are focused upon at that time.
Why not just say:
“Yes, he’s really a great guy!”
“She’s wonderful – I’m blessed to have her!”
Or simply, “Thanks.” 🙂
My daughter’s 7th birthday was round the corner. I was calling parents to invite their kids to the party. I dialed one number: “Hi! This is …’s mom. I’d like to speak with your mom, please.”
“Good evening, Aunty,” said my daughter’s friend (in India, ‘Aunty’ is the accepted way to address a friend’s mother), “Mummy is traveling, and she’ll be back next week. May I take a message?”
“I’d like to invite you to … Would it be possible to speak to your dad?”
“He’s not home yet, Aunty, but he’ll be back in an hour or so. If you’d like to speak with him right away, I could give you his cell phone number. Or, can he call you back when he’s home?”
By this time, I wanted to run across and give this child the biggest bear hug possible. Here’s someone not yet 7, who is having an amazingly intelligent and polite conversation on the phone with an adult she hasn’t exchanged ten sentences with in her whole life!
I asked for her dad’s number and called the gentleman. After extending my invitation, I told him how tremendously impressed I was with his daughter, how she conducted herself and the entire conversation over the phone.
At the party, I complimented him again when he came to pick her up. He was amazed: “I didn’t know she had it in her!”
That day, he was introduced to a rather amazing person – the girl who happened to be his daughter.
How wonderful it would be if you could step back from ‘your’ child and look at her as a person! The way you would look at anyone else you met…
You’d really look at her – into her eyes. You’d listen to her; give her your attention and a fair hearing. You’d be interested, and make an effort to understand her point of view, especially when it was radically different from your own. You’d wait till she finished speaking, instead of interrupting her.
You’d request him to do things instead of being peremptory and issuing orders (“I’m the parent, so you do as I say – because I say so!”). You’d give him a break – maybe he’s going through stuff you don’t know about. You’d be polite, and respect the choices he makes, even if you disagreed with him.
You’d treat him the way you’d treat anyone else who is not ‘your’ child. And that is what he needs – a chance to show you that he is a rather amazing person! 🙂
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
The days of old-school parenting are long gone, when children were seen and not heard. Today’s children ensure that it is their parents who are (barely) seen and not heard, at least by the kids themselves! 😉
A vital cornerstone of new-age parenting is the willingness of the parent to answer questions. As parents, we’ve had it dunned into our heads: encouraging children to ask questions will ensure they know more, retain their curiosity, and therefore study and achieve more (there isn’t necessarily a very high correlation between having knowledge and achieving more, but that’s what we’ve been brought up to believe)…
So we let them ask all kinds of questions and try and find suitable answers to those questions.
But there comes a point when the questions begin to bother you. The questions will usually bother you for only 2 reasons: either they are uncomfortable questions, dealing with issues you’re trying to ignore, or they are intrusive questions, which infringe on your privacy.
Uncomfortable questions make you think about your life, your beliefs and your relationships. They highlight the lack of congruence between what you say or show on the one hand, and what you think and feel on the other. The greater the discrepancy, the more discomfort you experience, and the more you want to sweep the issue(s) under the carpet. You don’t want to deal with it, and here’s your child, asking you questions. What can you do?
If you’re avoiding answering a question to duck the discomfort, think before you do so. Your child won’t know the answer to her question, but she will certainly know if you are trying to avoid answering it. When you do this, without meaning to, you teach your child to be dishonest. She sees you make an excuse to avoid an answer, and files the incident away as one way of dealing with unpleasant issues in her life. When something sufficiently uncomfortable comes along, she’ll repeat your response. Not because she thinks it’s the best response, but because this is what she has seen and learnt from the beginning – from you.
There’s nothing wrong with dishonesty. It has its rightful place in the world, just as honesty does. The problem is that any value perpetuates itself as you practice it. If you give in to dishonesty once, it is that much easier to do so the next time around, and that much more difficult to make the honest response the next time around. As you keep responding the dishonest way, you might end up looking around yourself and realizing that you’re living a false life.
So there’s your child’s question, staring you in the face: “Mom, why did you tell Dad that the bottle of whisky broke when actually you and your friend drank it all one afternoon?” There could be any number of reasons why you did what you did. The question has been asked, and it needs to be dealt with.
You need to make up your mind about a few things:
Do you want to answer the question? If not, tell him, “I don’t want to answer this question.” But be prepared for him to come right back at you with, “Why not?” If you want him to keep talking to you, if you want to retain his trust, you’d better come up with a better answer than either, “Because I don’t want to”, or “because I’m your Mom and I’m telling you so”. The first answer has you behaving in a stubborn, childish way, while with the second, you’re pulling rank. No fair – your child deserves better.
If you want to answer the question but can’t figure out the best way to do so, ask for time. Simply say, “I’m thinking about why I did what I did, and when I’m clear about the answer myself, I’ll let you know.” Commit to a specific time. “I’ll let you know by Sunday / by 10th November / before you go on the school picnic”. And then get back to him with the answer.
If you have a great relationship with your child, she may actually ask you a question like, “Dad / Mom, when did you first have sex?”
Maybe you were in your early teens when you did, the same age she is now, and you don’t want to tell her the truth because you’re afraid she’ll treat it as a green signal for her to go ahead and have her first experience with sex – something you know she is not ready for, and which you’d like to help her avoid.
You might choose to tell her a lie – that you first had sex in your twenties, or after you were married (if this applies), or whatever. But know that she will carry the answer in her head, and in an unguarded moment in the future, you will give the truth away, and she will note the difference in both answers. Once she does, she will re-visit every single thing you’ve told her, and wonder if it is true or not. Not the best thing to happen, which is why I’d suggest you avoid it.
Maybe you first had sex when you were 22, and are comfortable sharing this information with her.
Whether you want to answer the question or not, the truth is that this information is personal to you. No matter how much you love her, this is your personal life, and she really has no right to expect an answer to this question from you.
Tell her so. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive about it; just matter-of-fact.
Believe it or not, I learnt about not answering questions from my daughter. One day (she was then 6), her teacher and I met at school. I’d been through a grueling divorce, lasting 3 years of courtroom drama, and was just beginning to emerge from its shadow.
The teacher accosted me: Hi! I am so impressed with your daughter!
Me (smiling): Why?
Teacher: The other day, I heard a classmate ask her, “How come we never see your dad; only your mom?” And your young lady turns to the child and says, “It’s personal”. I was so impressed! Really an amazing response! I must compliment you – you’ve raised her so well!
My head was in a whirl.
I disclaimed all responsibility for my daughter’s response. In all the years I’d been going through the break-up of my marriage, it had never struck me to answer people’s intrusive questions with a crisp “It’s personal”.
“What happened?” “Was he bad?” “Did he hit you?” “Was he having an affair?” “What went wrong?”
To each of these questions from some well-meaning people and mostly prying gossip-mongers, I would make various responses, but it never struck me not to respond, not to answer the question.
And here’s my daughter’s response coming to me through her teacher. Talk about learning from your child!
I waited impatiently for her to get back from school (she was on the bus).
“Did you say…?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
“Where did you learn to say it?”
“Oh! I heard someone ask the teacher about something, and she said it was personal. That’s where I learnt it.”
Well, I don’t use those words at all – not even now. But I certainly do give that response – and I learnt it from my daughter! 🙂
Most of us are blessed with near and dear ones, and because they are so near and so dear, the lines separating them and us are often blurred. But there are many places where the line needs to be drawn.
The line that defines your right to your life, to your thoughts, to your SELF.
Don’t jump to answer the next time your son asks, “What were you thinking, Dad, just now? You had such a strange expression on your face!” Maybe the answer is innocuous, but it is vital that your child learn that he cannot enter your head on demand and tumble around in it. Tell him, “You don’t need to know what’s going through my head every moment of every day. Stay in your own head; live your own life”.
Needless to say, not answering some questions will teach your child to be her own person. And it will take away from you the right to ask her questions like, “Are you in a physical relationship with someone?”
Because she has the right to her own life too! 🙂
When I was a child, we got up in the morning, got dressed, went to school, came back, played with our friends, did homework, spent time with our parents in the evening, listened to the radio or watched TV, and got into bed. We got 3 meals a day; we got enough exercise, enough sleep, enough entertainment, enough social activity, and enough family time.
Our parents managed pretty well too. They did their own work, spent time with us, and never seemed to rush from one person / place / activity to another.
The idea that there ‘wasn’t enough time’ – for anything – had not yet been invented, apparently! 🙂
By the time I reached teenage, time began to acquire focus. I heard my parents tell me not to ‘waste’ time: on the phone, meeting people incessantly, watching TV all evening, day dreaming…
Today, our children hear it from birth: Don’t Waste Time.
I’m sure you’ve said it to your child at least once (not if you are a newly-minted parent, obviously): “Don’t waste time! There’s so much to do – get on with things…”
One day, my irritated daughter shot back at me, “I’m NOT wasting time, okay? I want to read this book.”
“But you’ve read it at least fourteen times already!” I protested.
“Twelve,” she smirked, “but what difference does that make to you? It’s my book. I’ll read it two hundred times, if I wish it. It’s none of your business! I don’t say anything about the books you read; you don’t interfere with my reading.” (Topsy-turvy logic, I agree. After all, I’m the parent, and parents have the ‘right’ to comment on what their kids are doing, whereas the reverse is pretty off-the-wall. But I have always given her equal rights. If this is kind of conversation is what equality entails, so be it, I say. Sometimes I think I let her get away with a bit too much in the name of equality, but there are some lessons only time can teach. And time needs time…)
I would normally have dismissed this outburst as another of the crazy, inexplicable things she does (that’s one of the ways we keep peace: we agree that the other is ‘simply nuts’! And then we place statements, incidents and outbursts in the ‘simply-nuts behavior box’ and put it aside 🙂 ), but I was in ‘listening‘ mode.
When I stopped to think about what she’d said, this is what I realized:
1. Much as I love her, it is her life, and her time. One way or another, that time will be spent.
2. I have very little control over how she (or anyone else, for that matter) spends her time. If at all I have any control, it is over how I spend my time. But here, I duck my responsibility, and say, “I have so much work, so many things to do, so much to handle, so many responsibilities, that I simply don’t get any time for myself!” Big-time responsibility-avoidance! 🙂
3. I can choose to ignore the reality of how little control I have over how she spends her time, and (i) worry about it, or (ii) explain to her, nag her, plead with her, and hound her to spend her time the way I believe is best for her, or (iii) both. This will create conflict between us, and that conflict will spill over into all areas of our lives. And there is no way to resolve this kind of conflict, because it is based on one of us being ‘right’ and the other one ‘wrong’.
4. Since it is her life, she has first dibs on choosing how she spends it. While she may or may not please anyone else with her choice; the one person she can definitely please is herself. She might as well make choices that please her. At least she will be happy, if nobody else will…
5. She can be an independent, worthwhile adult (the goal of parenting, in my view) only if she makes her own choices and accepts the consequences of those choices. Choosing how to spend time is also a choice. And the earlier you let your child begin to make this choice, the quicker and better he will learn what works for him and what doesn’t.
6. Time cannot be wasted; just like money cannot be wasted. ‘Waste’ is an opinion or a judgment of someone. If she wants to be word-perfect on five hundred novels, re-reading them for the nth time is a ‘good’ investment of time for her.
If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you’ll realize exactly the same thing about how your child ‘wastes’ time!
You wasted time too, you know, in the past. You probably still do. Celebrate the fact that you ‘waste’ time. A life in which time is always spent towards the achievement of one goal or another, is ultimately, a life devoid of spontaneity, enjoyment, and joy. Incredibly sad, don’t you think? What’s worse, it’s unnecessarily sad.
The next time your child ‘wastes’ time, let him. Either you will learn that he wasn’t wasting it, or he will feel he could use it differently. Either way, you will still have time with your child – because you both realize that your time is your own, and you will choose, happily, to spend some of it with each other!
Your baby is born! Some kind friend has gifted you a Baby Book to record all her ‘firsts’ – if you haven’t already bought such a book yourself. You keep the Baby Book open, with the pen ready in it, to record her very first ‘first’.
Nothing happens. The first time you see her smile at you, you’re thrilled and you’re heading for the Baby Book when you realize that she’s not smiling; she’s filling her diaper with all her might! 🙂
You listen eagerly for her first word. When she begins to vocalize, you’re listening like a hawk – you catch every sound, every inflection of her vocal cords. You hear her crying, and you’re listening with so much attention that you understand what her cries mean at different times.
All this while, you talk carefully to her: enunciating every syllable, exaggerating the expression in your voice so that she can learn words properly. Slowly, she learns to speak. And you’re still listening. When she starts expressing herself in sentences, you feel great! She can say pretty much what she wants to, and she understands what you are saying to her. Hallelujah! Communication is happening!
She talks mainly ‘business’ with you: asking or answering questions, saying what she wants and doesn’t want – stuff like that. She doesn’t initiate conversation; she’s not sharing ideas. Obviously not – she’s too young!
Then she starts spending time away from you – at the daycare, with a caregiver at home, on a play date, at school. When she’s back home, you ask her, “Did you have a good time? What did you do? What did your friend say? What did you eat?”
She begins slowly to put sentences together, searching for words to tell you her experience. You’re still listening carefully, prompting her to use the correct words, the correct tense, to pronounce words properly, and of course, listening to what she did when she was away from you. You do this so you can help her make sense of the experience.
She may say, “I ate beans for the first time – it was yummy.” Or “my friend did not give me her favorite teddy bear”. Or “one boy fell down on the stairs”. Whatever she says, you will carry the topic forward. In this way, she understands what it means to have a conversation.
She enjoys the attention with which you listen. She enjoys the entire experience of her speaking and telling you her thoughts, and your response to them. Slowly, she will want to share her ideas as well. She will want to tell you in ever-greater-detail what happened in her day while you were away.
This is when you stop listening.
Not because you’re not interested! But because the events themselves are so trivial, so repetitive, and she takes so much time to string together a single sentence (she hesitates, stumbles over a word or phrase, goes back to it to correct herself – maybe a second or third time, even –, looks for a word, gets sidetracked by another thought, comes back to what she was saying, forgets some detail, starts over, takes so many breaths between phrases), – and the entire incident is narrated as a single sentence! – that your mind has wandered far from what she’s saying, even as your eyes are glued to her face, and you’re making the right facial expressions and sounds and nodding your head at the right times. (Did you actually read and follow the last sentence? Kudos to you! 🙂 But that’s what it’s like – somewhat… 🙂 )
And this whole story is just to tell you that when her friend poured water out from a jug into a glass, some of it spilled out! You’re not listening. You’re hearing the words on autopilot. But you are so tuned to your child that she gets the impression that you’re listening with rapt attention.
It takes time for your child to become a fluent speaker, and in the time it takes, you get used to hearing on ‘autopilot’. Believe me, he will realize long before you know he knows it, that you’re not listening to him. And he will stop speaking to you.
As his fluency increases, and there are others to listen to him – friends, teachers, perhaps other adults – he will stop telling you things in detail. He will revert back to ‘business’ talk. He remembers subconsciously that you were very attentive in the days when you both talked only about essentials, so he goes back to that kind of talking with you.
But he’s grown up now, maybe 6 or 7 or older, and you suddenly realize that you want to have a real conversation with him. So you initiate it, but he won’t respond. He’s not playing, because when he was trying to make conversation, you were busy elsewhere (mentally). You’ve done it too many times, and he’s had enough.
This is how communication stops between parents and children. It is always and only because parents stop listening.
It’s tempting not to listen, and I’ve been guilty of it too – more times than I care to remember. But the important thing is to catch yourself, and bring your attention back. No matter how young or old your child is, when you realize your attention has wandered and you haven’t been listening, interrupt your child: “Sorry, I was thinking of something else. I missed what you said. Can you tell me again?” Or it might be, “I need to do something right now, but can you tell me this when I’ve finished my work? I’ll be able to listen to you properly then.” (He may be busy then, or have forgotten, or not be in the mood to tell you. That is a risk you’re taking, but better to take the risk than to wing it and pretend to be listening when you’re not.)
He knows you’ve not been paying attention, and when you acknowledge this to him, he starts paying attention. He starts noticing that you try your best to give him your fullest attention. He feels acknowledged, appreciated, reaffirmed. He learns what it feels like to be listened to; he learns what listening means. He learns to listen to you. And he keeps speaking to you. You will not be one of the many parents who complain: “My kid doesn’t tell me anything!”
Of course, there will be times when you’re speaking and your child’s attention wanders. At times like this, I hear my daughter say, “Hey, Mom! I wasn’t listening. Can you replay?”
You bet I can! 🙂