The Value of Listening

Eliza Clark
January 6, 2012

If you are listening, your children will tell you extraordinary things. This in itself is one of the great gifts of parenting.

The other day, coming up the elevator, my four- (on the verge of five-) year-old said to me: "Mommy, when you grow older, everything changes."

"What things," I said.

She replied, "Your friends change. And you change, too. You really do. Like me. I'm changing. Everything is starting to make sense to me."

And I thought to myself, No, don't change! But I could also see exactly what she meant. Many of the vast, inchoate swirling sensory mysteries of how the world works are beginning to crystallize for her. She gets more and more clued-in every day, and there's nothing I can do about it.

But then again, here's something else that she says to me fairly often:

"Mama, there are things that kids know that grown-ups don't understand."

Now I like to think of myself as an adult who is really in tune with my children, and I certainly do spend a lot of time with them. But fundamentally, as Peter Pan reminds us, mercilessly, all grown-ups have forgotten how to fly, and many of us don't even remember that we ever visited Neverland.

If we want to know anything about childhood, and the only way is to be quiet for once and listen. Attentiveness on our part, and the intermittent silence that it requires, yields treasures.

A very important instance of this occurs when babies are learning to talk. As Po Bronson skillfully explains in a chapter of Nurture Shock, a language rich environment alone is not enough to fully nurture a baby's emerging attempts at speech. It is also matters greatly that parents and caregivers be attuned to the baby's vocalizations, and respond to them. "This variable, how a parent responds to a child's vocalizations—right in the moment—seems to be the most powerful mechanism pulling a child from babble to fluent speech." The same research also shows that babies need periods of quiet playtime, alone, when their brains can consolidate their new knowledge and they can babble to themselves.

The value of listening persists all through the parent-child relationship, and no one has expressed this more clearly than Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their classic, must-read book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk. The best way to avert arguments, gain cooperation and improve behavior is to listen and to acknowledge what we've heard. It's only by truly attending to our children's perspectives that we can ever get anywhere with these small, perplexing people.

And if we're lucky they'll tell us a bit about Neverland in return....

From the Parents

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