Listen, Listen

This post is part of my Parenting Calmly series written by guests to offer a variety of experiences and ideas. We want to bring encouragement, hope and inspiration as parents learn to let go of harmful practices and embrace helpful ones. How can you strengthen the relationship with your child in a way that brings laughter, love and ease to your family? Let’s find out together.

Please welcome writer, Eithne Egan.

When my son first became interested in stories, one of our favorites was “Listen, Listen”, a beautiful rhyming storybook celebrating the pacing and poetry of the seasons. Written by Phillis Gershato, this gorgeous Barefoot Books offering artfully lulls you into quiet examination of nature, breathing in the sights and sounds of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter; the chirping and buzzing of birds and insects, the silent drifting of clouds, and the distant sounds of children playing joyfully. Of course, the book is not just about the shifting of the seasons, it’s about learning to listen and observe.

One of my greatest lessons (one I’m still learning) as a parent is to listen. Children are always communicating.

They are always telling us what we need to know, even when it seems that they are completely at odds with us, shut down, and not cooperating or communicating. When that wall goes up, as parents we can feel utterly clueless about our children’s innermost thoughts, motivations and seemingly perplexing and confounding behavior. That sense of ineptness is magnified when you have a child with a communication disorder. Labels aside, (my son Luca, who just celebrated his eleventh birthday, has several), it’s very challenging when your child lacks verbal skills. Much of what we are taught about positive parenting is focused on verbal communication; a rather unhelpful approach if your child can’t easily converse, negotiate, advocate, or object. At least, not with spoken words.

When Luca was about three years old, I watched his teacher pick him up and roughly fold his little limbs into his preschool-sized seat. She did that because when she greeted him that morning, his tiny body made an almost involuntary u-turn like he would rather bolt through the school door into a busy urban street rather than comply with her requests. He was afraid of her. But all she saw was non-compliance.

Luca’s anxiety was palpable, but it took years of wrangling before he had an official diagnosis, and until then (and many times since), it seemed that nobody was willing to listen. It seemed that people would rather believe that Luca’s difficulty self-regulating and communicating appropriately were rooted in a desire to act out or manipulate, when the truth was he simply lacked the skills to do so. And this is one of my core beliefs about children – they are always doing the best they can.

In the meantime, I honed my listening skills. Here’s the thing about listening – it’s a practice. You can’t just switch it on. You have to practice being present and still and you have to silence that voice in your head that tells you should know the answers right away. You have to get to a place where you aren’t overwhelmed by your child’s emotions and your fears about the future. And that requires self-care. Most of us have at one time or another lost our patience with our kids, and we understand that if we’re not getting enough sleep or we haven’t made it to the gym in a few weeks, we can begin to slide away from that place of self-control we like to operate from as parents. But it goes much deeper than that.

We can only be present for children if we’re first present for ourselves. And so our children become our greatest teachers by constantly challenging us to do that.

 

As Luca’s communication skills have improved slowly, so have mine. He’s gotten better at talking, and I’ve gotten better at listening, and together we’re better at communicating his needs to those that support him in other ways. When I feel like my son is struggling, it reminds me to pay closer attention to what he is telling me in other ways. Or to simply just be quiet, and stop listening to my own fears andjudgments about the challenges we encounter. And as time goes by, the struggles are less frequent and not so fraught with anxiety. And language has become a tool we use but not something we can rely on completely. I’d guess that’s true for most kids, even those without communication delays.

When Luca was about six, my sister and her daughter flew over from Ireland to visit us in Boston. My little niece was only three and full of curiosity and a million questions a day as only three-year-olds can be. She followed Luca around and wore his clothes (back then, boys were cooler than girls) and the two of them had a grand old time doing handstands and freeze dances and baking chocolate cupcakes. But she really, really wanted him to talk to her. And he was so quiet that she was disappointed and perplexed. And many times during that visit, she asked my sister, “Mam, why won’t Luca talk to me?” And my sister would always say, “Don’t worry, he is listening. Luca is a really, really good listener.” And that satisfied her, because she felt heard.

My son is the best listener of all. He experiences the world in different way, much of it based on sights and sounds that are often overwhelming, but never ignored. He will never miss the subtle cues that we so easily disregard. Every single day he reminds me to listen, and I try to remember to show him that he is heard, even when he doesn’t speak.

 

eithneEithne Egan is a life coach and postpartum doula in Boston, MA, who helps women and moms in every stage of motherhood find joy in the imperfect, balance in the chaos, and learn to express their truly unique and beautiful selves. You can find her at http://trueessencecoaching.net/

  • Eithne, this is wise and profound. Not enough people really listen, especially to children. It becomes especially important to shift our communication paradigm when someone responds in the unique ways that Luca does. Being present is what it’s all about.

    • Eithne Egan

      Thank you for your kind comment and for understanding Loran!

  • Jazzygal

    That is beautiful Eithne….and a very important message. Listening is a very important parenting skill and communication comes in different forms.

    • Eithne Egan

      Thank you Valerie! A skill I’m still learning 🙂

      • Jazzygal

        Oh aren’t we all Eithne, aren’t we all!

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