A month or so ago, I turned from the passenger seat of my Subaru to beseech my then almost-10-year-old to please try to have a conversation, to take his nose out of his book or the god-forsaken iTouch and just talk to me.
“Why don’t you just say what’s on your mind?” I asked him. I always felt strongly about how important it is to say what’s on your mind, and it seemed especially important following a previous afternoon on the playground where he’d cried about “being bored,” but I found out later his feelings had been badly hurt by another boy.
I looked into his deep brown eyes and he stared right back. “I don’t because you never listen to me,” he said point blank. “I always start to talk, start to tell you something and you say, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ or ‘wait : ‘”
I exited my body then and stood like a little red devil on my own shoulder, realizing with a thud that he was exactly right. Often I was too busy with my head in a swirl about how not to screw up my kids, too busy in conversation with my husband about what we should do and say and how to act so as not to screw up the kids, that I barely notice the actual words coming out of the little mouths of my very own kids.
Of course, I am forced to “listen” when they scream or misbehave, like how I joke (knowing it’s true) that my younger son, now 7, started yelling at age 1 solely as a survival tactic so as not to be completely ignored. I know that my kids will eventually get heard enough to make it passably through life, but what they say in those angry, frustrated, finally-heard moments is not what they need to say, not what I need to hear. Those words are the cover-up words, the words they use to tell you in not-so-many words that they need to tell you something important and they don’t know how.
After I took a deep breath, still eye-locked with my sweet ignored boy, I nodded my head slowly.
“You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I do that all the time. Daddy and I both do that all the time, and I’m sorry. I will try harder to listen, because I do really want to hear what you have to say.”
I said this and I meant this but it is not at all easy. My husband had left the car to do an errand, so that made it a bit easier – one less person to weigh in on the situation, give their opinion, to get defensive. But he would be back, and training him not to talk on and on – not to let me talk on and on – would be a challenge. And then, of course, when the floodgates opened, when my listening ears had been put forward to listen, there were two little boys in the back who, just like their parents, both wanted the floor, usually at the same time.
Allowing for meaningful, flowing conversation where all parties are satisfied is difficult among any group of people, but maybe especially in a family. Siblings vie to best each other, especially in the eyes of Mom & Dad, and then Mom & Dad have their own egos to fulfill giving wise advice, trying to sound smarter than they really feel. The simple act of honest listening and honest feedback, back and forth and around, takes concentrated effort of the kind that seems too daunting faced with dishes and load after load of laundry.
Too bad, though. Here my son was brave and strong and smart enough to tell me the answer to the question of how best to get him to open up, the question I’ve been trying to figure out through articles and books and countless conversations with everyone but him. He told me straight up that the answer was to listen, to listen in a real way, in a genuine way where I actually trusted him to say what he wanted to say and to say it clearly. That wouldn’t only help our relationship, my listening, but it would help him practice how to respond to any person who might communicate with him, even meanly.
“I think about what I should say in the moment, but I can’t get it out fast enough,” he’d complained about why he had just sat back and taken someone saying something mean to him without retort. Practice conversations with me, where I actually listened, would be (and would have been) great practice for what to say when to whom and how to have the confidence to carry it out.
So we tried. The rest of that first month-ago weekend was fabulous, enlightened. I actually tried to shush myself and my husband more than the kids, let them finish sentences even in moments when I knew the eggs were burning on the stove. Who cared about burned eggs? I could always make a new batch. If I don’t start listening, really listening, I realized, it will be too late. My children will have written me off as a trusted source, as an earpiece for their thoughts and actions. I needed to talk less and nod more, I needed to act as a sounding board for their inspired thoughts on the world before they no longer think they are inspired because no one seems to listen, no one seems to care, even their mother.
I held hands more with my boys that weekend as they told me stories. I sat and listened to them read to me and talk to me on their beds, newly unbunked because I finally heard distinctly my little one’s dislike of the dungeon-like bottom as reason for why he slept with his brother. I bought a new iPhone and let my older son figure out some apps for me. “What are your interests?” he’d asked, more willing to listen since I was.
Since then, we have taken a road trip to Florida (26+ hours of togetherness, each way) where we made a concerted effort to listen and talk to one another, despite a fair amount of technology use in between, and I have definitely been more cognizant of the need to let both my boys have a strong voice in our household. I have seen them stand taller from having been heard and seen; I’ve seen the opposite when their input is overlooked, which of course continues by accident and, sometimes, on purpose, out of necessity.
I sometimes feel like a referee, holding up one hand for one and pointing to the other to let them go ahead and talk. If it doesn’t come to blows, if no one gets bloody from fighting for the stage, I am happy, ecstatic actually, that they both are so anxious to share.
As they grow in size and volume, I want them to continue to open up, even if some of the words are more colorful than I might myself choose. If I’m committed to listening, which I am, I cannot control what I hear. I just have to pay attention and help my kids make sense of what they’re picking up in the world around them. I remind myself every day before I wake them up or greet them after school or in the evening: Push aside your worry about them and just listen.