Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Listen Up

Stacy Snyder - Listen Up - StacySaysIt
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We hear our children every day.  Their words, stories and thoughts revolve around their toys, their friends, their teachers, their jokes, their fears, etc.  We don’t always listen, though, to what they’re actually saying.  You can miss the story of your child’s life if you don’t actively turn your listening ears on.

I had the luxury of spending a few hours alone with my own parents a few weeks ago in Indianapolis.  No kids, no spouse, no friends or extended family.  We went to lunch at a local eatery of my father’s choice, where he knows the owner and many of the servers, hosts, and patrons.  Normally I dig that type of atmosphere, as I’m a huge supporter of local businesses and I too enjoy a familiarity about my surroundings.

The people were nice, the food was good, and the service was top-notch.  It was the perfect atmosphere for us to have an actual conversation, one that is uninterrupted by little hands trying to grab the phone, children trying to compete for the attention of their grandparents, or siblings engaging in sparring that only takes place in front of relatives.   The dogs’ antics aren’t stealing center stage at the restaurant and here the call waiting is obsolete.  Just as my parents and I start in on our first of many unfinished conversations, the server comes to take our order.  We order and my dad tells a funny story of some sort to the waitress.  By the time he’s finished with his joke, he’s forgotten about our half-mast conversation, and sits at the table waiting fodder.  We engage in a second discussion about (insert topic here) which we don’t get to complete because my mom knows the old codger sitting kitty-cornered from our table and needs to say hello.  He doesn’t recognize her and ends the salutation abruptly.  My mom focuses her attention back to us and is about to join in on our talk, when the old man finally recognizes my mom and intercedes to say hello again, this time really meaning it.  A short, yet strained, conversation ensues between the elder and my mom, as he doesn’t hear so well and many words have to be repeated, LOUDLY across the tables. 
With everyone’s attention back at their own table with their own company, I start to share yet another story with my parents, in answer to a question my dad has posed earlier.  Before I finish my thought, the host has passed our table on his way to seat another group of patrons, and my dad is loudly teasing him from across the room, about his supposed singing abilities.  I don’t even know the how or the why of the conversation, but I am cognizant at that point that any external small talk would trump anything I had to say.  I’m also painfully aware that when the intrusive small talk stops, my dad will have no idea of the topic we had been previously discussing.  I start to get annoyed and even begin that nasty cauldron-stirring we all do from time to time, where you overdramatize the obvious, thinking, “He’s not listening.  He never listens.  He always pretends to listen, but in actuality is just waiting for a moment to add something of his own.”  

Then I catch the eye of a toddler sitting in a high-chair at the table behind us.  He’s flirting with me, trying to get my attention.  I engage in a full-on game of peek-a-boo with him, as it’s more interactive than anything I have going on at my own booth.  The little boy is like a sponge, just soaking up any bit of attention he can get from me.  I’m a sucker for kids on a good day, but my current state of frustration with my own parents for not allowing a single moment of uninterrupted conversation, allows me to pour it on thick with this tyke.  The kid eats while he’s eyeballing me, just daring me to look away so he can start his hide and seek routine up again.  From time to time I tune into my own table’s conversation, but realize my attention is not really needed there, so my mind starts to wander.

Here I am, at 40 years old, perturbed because my dad doesn’t really listen to me.  In all fairness, we need to call a spade a spade, as I’m a huge motor mouth that talks too much for any innocent bystander in a five-minute time frame.  So just imagine how my parents must feel having raised me, year in and year out!  They’ve probably always been overwhelmed with my chatter and my opinions on EVERYTHING.  They’re probably glad to now have grandkids as a buffer between us!  

I know my mom listened to me, though, for the majority of my childhood.  She heard the things I said.  She caught on to the meaning of my lack of communication.  She knew what to expect from the undertones of my language.  She questioned me on things she didn’t understand, stamped a seal of approval on those things she agreed with, and debated with me (or sometimes nagged or lectured me) about those things she disagreed with.  She’d head off potential disasters, based on what she’d hear me say, and she’d sometimes punish me for those things I didn’t know she overheard!  I knew she was paying attention, even if sometimes she was in auto-pilot as she had so much of her own stuff going on.   

I think about my own kids now.  My girls talk a lot.  Sometimes they talk incessantly.  Sometimes it drives me absolutely batty.  Sometimes I tune them out.  Sometimes I half-listen.  Sometimes the meaning of their expressions registers days after their words have been spoken, often times when it is too late to discuss.  Other times, I turn my mind off of the 75-item-deep chore list constantly looping in my subconscious, and actively engage in listening to my kids.  This is when the magic takes place.  This is when I learn who my kids are becoming, what they are affected by, and why they feel the way they do.  This is when I find out who they admire, what makes them happy, where they want to visit, and when they are most receptive to change.  This is also when I hear what they are struggling with.  I don’t have to ask them the questions to get the answers.  They tell me everything I need to know if I just pay attention.  Sometimes I probe further into their stories for more clarification, other times I just listen and observe.  Many times my first reaction is to correct their grammar or remind them not to talk with their mouths full of food, but always my goal is to pay attention, as I am forever fearful of missing a cue one of them puts out about a situation that’s in the brewing stage or a potential fear that can be squashed.  I don’t want to neglect a cry for help or bypass a latent learning experience.

The engaging part is hard.  Whether you’re out working in Corporate America for ten hours a day, leaving just a few hours a day with your kids, or if you’re home with them all day, the concept is the same:  you need to take advantage of a listening moment when it presents itself.  It’s the quality of the moment, not the quantity of the moments themselves.  Don’t let the beat-down of the work day or the monotony of the household chores be the excuse that robs you from precious quality time with your children.  Draw them in.  Share your day.  Ask about theirs.  Hear them out.  Allow them to open up to you.  Listen attentively.  Show them you care.  Show them you notice.  Show them you’re listening.  Lead by example so they can learn to be good listeners themselves.  Time flies.  Before you know it, your kids will be packed up and heading out the door for preschool, college or their honeymoon.  Don’t let them cross that threshold thinking you don’t care what they say just because you didn’t listen.

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