I’m celebrating Week of the Young Child 2018 a week early! (Yay, mom brain!) Yesterday I wrote about curbing our tendency to tell kids “no, don’t, stop.” Today I’m talking about listening to them.
I write a lot about the importance of letting people tell their narratives as they see them. I believe this is crucial for understanding and making peace with those who are different from us. When we fail to hear what people are actually saying and meaning, when we hijack their narratives to push our own agenda, we are no longer truth seekers.
Children are no exception. In fact, I think it’s particularly imperative for parents to figure out what their children mean, instead of foisting false motives onto kids. Children are only just becoming self-aware and are much less capable of expressing that self-awareness. We are their last court of appeals; if we get it wrong, they have no one else to turn to.
One of my students injured herself on the playground — tripped while running, regular kid stuff. When her mom asked the girl for an explanation, she didn’t even let her daughter finish the requested explanation before lovingly and kindly butting in with her own version:
“I was running on the playground, and — ”
“No, you weren’t looking where you were going again, were you?”
The girl’s happy smile froze. She didn’t contradict or agree with this assessment. She didn’t know what to say in the face of a parent rewriting the story of how she simply tripped over a stair step. What’s worse, the parent insinuated that this was almost a character issue: you’re too spazzy, you never pay attention.
We hijack our children’s narratives all the time, especially when they’re expressing inconvenient emotions.
I find myself teasingly calling e.e. a crankybutt every time he inexplicably cried. This is dismissive of both his emotions and his communication. It’s not that he understands and is offended by the term “crankybutt”; it’s not that I fail to quickly and gently respond to his cries.
But it is the case that every time I genuinely view him as a crankybutt, I am not accurately identifying his real needs and emotions. Every time I label him without understanding, I train myself to view me as the authority on my child’s emotions and meaning, instead of him.
With that in mind, I try to be intentional in how I speak to and about e.e. When he starts fussing for no apparent reason, I say, “I wonder if you’re feeling tired” or “I wonder if you’d like to lie on your back now; let’s roll you over and see.” Simply adding I wonder reminds me to be observant rather than prematurely dogmatic.
If a nap or a spell on his back doesn’t do the trick, it doesn’t mean he is a cranky, demanding child who, oh my goodness, just needs to stop crying already. It means my assessment was wrong about what his crying meant, and I should try something else.
When my husband comes home, I try to speak accurately of e.e. Was he really “cranky all day”? Was he really “clingy” or “needy” (both negative words)? Or was he simply in genuine need of more cuddles and attention because he’s an infant and requires Mommy to help regulate his emotions? Maybe he was slightly gassy and I didn’t know it, or feeling extra tired that day, or starting another growth spurt unbeknownst to me.
How we speak of our children to ourselves and to others matters so much, because perception is reality. If we start viewing our kids as whiny, cranky, and naughty, instead of tired, overstimulated, and curious, we will start treating them as whiners, crankybutts, and disobedient children — instead of just kids. We will overwrite and thus erase what our children are trying to tell us in their limited way.
Even more insidiously and subtly, we’ll blame our kids for our own negative feelings instead of taking ownership of them ourselves. We are worn out at the end of the day, preoccupied with our own exhaustion and stress, so when our preschooler bursts into tears at pickup, we minimize her exhaustion and stress as a “tantrum” in order to cope. “Why are you being such a baby?” we’ll snap. “Stop crying right now.”
Guilty as charged. When e.e. wasn’t napping well and I was zonked from multiple night feedings, I felt frustration, sometimes even anger, at e.e. and his nonstop crying. “You are so frustrating!” I wanted to yell. “Just stop crying and go to sleep and we’ll both be happy!”
With the very last shred of self-control within me, I paused and reminded myself that e.e. was not frustrating; I was frustrated; and there’s a big difference.
Correctly identifying and speaking the frustration out loud kept me from blowing my top: “I am feeling frustrated,” I would tell my uncomprehending infant. “You keep crying, I haven’t slept enough, and all of that is making me feel very frustrated with you.”
Reality was restored, the true narrative recovered, and both my feelings and e.e.’s feelings were understood and validated.