Sunday, February 5, 2017

Are you Listening?

Back in the fall of 2013, just before I earned my National Board Certification, I became a consultant for Thirty-One Gifts. As a teacher it was just natural to sell the bags that I had found so much use for. Very quickly I promoted up to senior consultant with two girls selling under me and I earned my way to their National Conference in July of 2014.

While I ultimately decided that selling bags wasn't for me (mostly due to the fact that I began my doctorate and had zero time--or real interest--in holding parties to sell the product required to stay active), there is something that has stuck with me since that conference. Surprisingly, it keeps coming back up. 

There were many speakers during the event. I can't remember most of them (although LeAnn Touhy of The Blind Side fame sticks out as does Lisa Harper), but many of their words stuck with me. One of them said the most important question to ask yourself every day is 

Are you listening?

Doesn't seem that profound, does it? But it is.

Especially in our current politically divided time, listening is even more important. You should, at the very least, believe that children are listening. They are probably better listeners than adults are because they do not have as many things distracting them on a daily basis. Children absolutely listen to things we say to them, to each other and to what they see on television.

Last weekend, I was in Los Angeles, California attending the 2nd Teacher Powered Schools Conference. It had been raining cats and dogs before I got there but was beautiful while I was there. Sunny and between 70-75 degrees the days I was there. It was fabulous for a teacher from the midwest to experience that in the middle of January! 

I'm also very fortunate that my cousin, known affectionately as SuperDan (because, well, he IS super), lives in LA, not even 5 minutes from the hotel the conference was at. He was very kind and showed me around the city while I wasn't immersed in the conference. (It isn't very often a Michigan girl can claim to have had a dissertation committee meeting from Malibu beach, huh? But I did it!)

On Friday, January 27, we were at his apartment getting ready to head to Malibu when I called the teenagers back home. Middle Child has Asperger's and worries incessantly, especially about me. (It probably doesn't help that I have traveled more in the past three years than I have in her entire life.) So I sat at the dining table and called home and had a few minute conversation with both teens separately and then hung up to get ready for the beach. SuperDan commented that he could tell that I actually talk to my kids. 

I was kind of taken aback by that at first and asked what he meant. He doesn't have children but says he pays a lot of attention to people who do and how those kids interact with other adults. He said the fact that I had a two-way conversation with both of my teens, where it was obvious they were also responding and asking me questions too, was refreshing because so often he sees kids/teens who do not know how to really hold their own in a conversation.

I hadn't really considered that perspective before. I suppose, as a teacher, who gets paid who talk all the time, it is natural for me to have conversations with children. But, the more I have thought on our conversation, the more I have paid attention to what is going on around me. I have noticed my own words more as I speak to my students, but also how they speak to each other. 

Naturally this brought me back to those profound words: Are you listening? 

Today the words came back again. I was at the grocery store. Terrible place to be on Super Bowl Sunday, right after the church hour. (What was I thinking??) It was very busy and crowded. I was in no hurry though so I didn't mind much. As I was pushing my way up and down the aisles, I noticed a little boy, probably between 14-18 months old standing up in the basket of the cart being pushed by--I assume--his dad. As children this age are prone to do, he let loose a string of adorable non-words as he gazed out at the store around him. Had this been my child, or my grandson, I would have talked back to him, perhaps replying with something like "Really? What are you talking about?" or even "Goodness, tell me more!" to let him know that his practice talk is a good thing.

What I heard instead was "hey, no one is talking to you, be quiet." I'm sure you have figured out if you've read this blog for any length of time (or you know me personally), that it is pretty difficult to render me speechless. But this statement did. Now, let me be very clear: my intent here is not to shame this father or act like I am somehow superior to him. I just believe I am in a position to notice these things and in light of recent conversations and experiences am more sensitive to someone speaking to a child like this.

Have you ever reflected on a lesson or an interaction with a student and wished you hadn't said something that you did? Maybe you were unintentionally sarcastic or what you meant to say came out sounding so much ruder than it did in your head. We have all experienced those things before. And I would bet that you could name several occasions where someone's careless speech has made you feel bad. You probably wouldn't even have to think very hard about it. Words cut deep a lot of the time. (So much for that childhood saying of "words will never hurt me"....all lies. Words DO hurt.)

As it stands, this interaction with the little boy and his father that I observed from afar just brought this all back to the front of my mind. How often do we say things to our children--or each other--that we really don't mean because we aren't present in the moment? Because we are distracted by whatever we are doing? Because we are too caught up in whatever frivolous thing has caught our attention? 

I go back to my previous point. You should, at the very least, believe that children are listening. They are probably better listeners than adults are because they do not have as many things distracting them on a daily basis. Children absolutely listen to things we say to them, to each other and to what they see on television. 

While this little boy has likely already forgotten this exchange, what if he was four? Five? Seven? Twelve? Whether we like it or not, kids are listening. They are learning how to be good human beings by the examples they see around them. If they are always shushed or admonished for speaking, they will remember. They will suffer for that.

As I think back on my career, I can readily recall the children who are obviously spoken to like people and those who are spoken down to. It is very obvious by their interactions with their peers and the adults around them. 

Perhaps if we adults stopped being distracted, lived more fully present in the moment and were a bit more careful with our words toward our children, they would all grow up to be better people. Chances would we. 

Are you listening? 


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