Your baby is born! Some kind friend has gifted you a Baby Book to record all her ‘firsts’ – if you haven’t already bought such a book yourself. You keep the Baby Book open, with the pen ready in it, to record her very first ‘first’.
Nothing happens. The first time you see her smile at you, you’re thrilled and you’re heading for the Baby Book when you realize that she’s not smiling; she’s filling her diaper with all her might! 🙂
You listen eagerly for her first word. When she begins to vocalize, you’re listening like a hawk – you catch every sound, every inflection of her vocal cords. You hear her crying, and you’re listening with so much attention that you understand what her cries mean at different times.
All this while, you talk carefully to her: enunciating every syllable, exaggerating the expression in your voice so that she can learn words properly. Slowly, she learns to speak. And you’re still listening. When she starts expressing herself in sentences, you feel great! She can say pretty much what she wants to, and she understands what you are saying to her. Hallelujah! Communication is happening!
She talks mainly ‘business’ with you: asking or answering questions, saying what she wants and doesn’t want – stuff like that. She doesn’t initiate conversation; she’s not sharing ideas. Obviously not – she’s too young!
Then she starts spending time away from you – at the daycare, with a caregiver at home, on a play date, at school. When she’s back home, you ask her, “Did you have a good time? What did you do? What did your friend say? What did you eat?”
She begins slowly to put sentences together, searching for words to tell you her experience. You’re still listening carefully, prompting her to use the correct words, the correct tense, to pronounce words properly, and of course, listening to what she did when she was away from you. You do this so you can help her make sense of the experience.
She may say, “I ate beans for the first time – it was yummy.” Or “my friend did not give me her favorite teddy bear”. Or “one boy fell down on the stairs”. Whatever she says, you will carry the topic forward. In this way, she understands what it means to have a conversation.
She enjoys the attention with which you listen. She enjoys the entire experience of her speaking and telling you her thoughts, and your response to them. Slowly, she will want to share her ideas as well. She will want to tell you in ever-greater-detail what happened in her day while you were away.
This is when you stop listening.
Not because you’re not interested! But because the events themselves are so trivial, so repetitive, and she takes so much time to string together a single sentence (she hesitates, stumbles over a word or phrase, goes back to it to correct herself – maybe a second or third time, even –, looks for a word, gets sidetracked by another thought, comes back to what she was saying, forgets some detail, starts over, takes so many breaths between phrases), – and the entire incident is narrated as a single sentence! – that your mind has wandered far from what she’s saying, even as your eyes are glued to her face, and you’re making the right facial expressions and sounds and nodding your head at the right times. (Did you actually read and follow the last sentence? Kudos to you! 🙂 But that’s what it’s like – somewhat… 🙂 )
And this whole story is just to tell you that when her friend poured water out from a jug into a glass, some of it spilled out! You’re not listening. You’re hearing the words on autopilot. But you are so tuned to your child that she gets the impression that you’re listening with rapt attention.
It takes time for your child to become a fluent speaker, and in the time it takes, you get used to hearing on ‘autopilot’. Believe me, he will realize long before you know he knows it, that you’re not listening to him. And he will stop speaking to you.
As his fluency increases, and there are others to listen to him – friends, teachers, perhaps other adults – he will stop telling you things in detail. He will revert back to ‘business’ talk. He remembers subconsciously that you were very attentive in the days when you both talked only about essentials, so he goes back to that kind of talking with you.
But he’s grown up now, maybe 6 or 7 or older, and you suddenly realize that you want to have a real conversation with him. So you initiate it, but he won’t respond. He’s not playing, because when he was trying to make conversation, you were busy elsewhere (mentally). You’ve done it too many times, and he’s had enough.
This is how communication stops between parents and children. It is always and only because parents stop listening.
It’s tempting not to listen, and I’ve been guilty of it too – more times than I care to remember. But the important thing is to catch yourself, and bring your attention back. No matter how young or old your child is, when you realize your attention has wandered and you haven’t been listening, interrupt your child: “Sorry, I was thinking of something else. I missed what you said. Can you tell me again?” Or it might be, “I need to do something right now, but can you tell me this when I’ve finished my work? I’ll be able to listen to you properly then.” (He may be busy then, or have forgotten, or not be in the mood to tell you. That is a risk you’re taking, but better to take the risk than to wing it and pretend to be listening when you’re not.)
He knows you’ve not been paying attention, and when you acknowledge this to him, he starts paying attention. He starts noticing that you try your best to give him your fullest attention. He feels acknowledged, appreciated, reaffirmed. He learns what it feels like to be listened to; he learns what listening means. He learns to listen to you. And he keeps speaking to you. You will not be one of the many parents who complain: “My kid doesn’t tell me anything!”
Of course, there will be times when you’re speaking and your child’s attention wanders. At times like this, I hear my daughter say, “Hey, Mom! I wasn’t listening. Can you replay?”
You bet I can! 🙂