The ideal: I’m all ears, BFG style, whenever my daughter tells me a story.
The reality: “And then the big troll just….” “Yup, uh-huh… hold on”… “And the dinosaur” “Amazing! Gimme a sec”…. “And then…” “Hang on I’m just…” “And… and… Mum…. MUM!!!!…” “Wait I AM listening, I am LISTENING….”.
Straight-up lies. Hopeful ones, but lies nonetheless.
I say I’m all ears, but she can see I’m anything but. I am patently, in plain sight, flagrantly NOT listening. I’m looking at my phone, or attempting to wipe some crumbs off the floor, or working on my laptop. I might be hearing her words in order. But that’s about it.
I don’t treat my friends like this, why my kids?
Even when they can’t see the difference, they can feel it. Even if I’m not physically busy, I have 20 mental browsers open and running. And even if they get my attention, they rarely get immersion. Too often I think I’m listening but I’m actually readying my response, or worse, my evaluation.
So here are some tips I’ve been trying and found helpful at home, hung off that old fire-safety advice, Stop, Drop and Roll:
1. STOP what I’m doing or thinking about, look her in the eye (it’s crazy the difference that makes) and listen. At least once a day when they call for it, give them my full attention.
2. DROP any agenda, expectation, want, need or judgment for the interaction — it all narrows the ear-ways. If I find my mind wandering silently repeat her words back. Try to notice all the ways she’s speaking — her tone, her feeling, her body language.
3. ROLL with it, give myself over, immerse myself just like I’m reading a book. Respond less, and less often. Give them the full page.
Of course if you’re one of my daughters, the ultimate kicker (and it’s a big one) is that my entire mission with Spin A Yarn India is to LISTEN to kids. And I’m not so bad at doing it — with other people’s kids. I mean come on. My actual job. The raison d’etre. Not cool Mum. Not cool at all.
Spin A Yarn India started simply enough: I liked to listen to and make up stories as a kid myself, I thought I could help kids in the digital age to do it more. But increasingly I’ve realised it’s less about getting kids to listen to or tell more stories, and more about getting everyone else to listen more to the stories the kids are already telling us all the time.
When I started I couldn’t understand why that might be hard for parents to listen. And then my 1 year old became a chatty 2 year old, and then a 4 year old, and another 2 year old joined the picture. Enter Stage Left — hubris, exit (chased by a bear) — my slightly judgey tone.
There’s plenty to get in the way — work, admin, laundry, taxes, the way they start telling you a story just as the phone is ringing from work. But it goes beyond that. Very little of the doing or thinking that distracts is as necessary or urgent as it feels.
There are tasks yes, but there’s also a habit of tasks (and the illusion that I might be one task away from the end of the list). There’s exhaustion too (the constantly moving shark of parenthood), but there’s also where we choose to put our effort.
And then there’s the spectre of a culture that values the value-add above all. Parenthood as the sum of tasks accomplished rather than relationships nurtured.
Because the invisible labour of listening is just that. And less than that in fact, because real listening isn’t so much laborious as challenging. More hard than work. And when you’ve done the un-work, there is a release of joy and presence — which smacks too much of delight for society’s parenting scorecard.
(Side note: dispiritingly, when I did a web search for listening to your kids the first several pages were just links to tips about how to get your kids to listen more to you… way to prove the point google).
To relish just listening, to choose not be visibly weighed by all the tasks we ignore in its place, is to admit a pleasure tantamount to not doing our ‘job’. So our non-listening becomes performative, showing them, and the world, how busy we are. As if the importance of our roles in our children’s lives, as if what matters in our own lives, will become weightier through errand and instruction, ignoring that light fullness of heart where the final weighing will be.
Even if we can shrug all this aside, true listening remains a challenge. And it can often seem hardest with those we love the most, those we most want to listen to.
As Joan Didion said of the way we tend to deal with children “later we realise that maybe we haven’t been listening to them at all, we’ve been listening to the very edge of what they say, without letting it sink in”.
Because really listening means not just clearing away your own activity and chatter, but also wiping the slate of any expectations you have for what you will hear, any agenda. Anything you hope for an interaction, or fear for it, narrows your aperture of attention.
And of course, we hope and fear for our children most of everyone. To set all that aside is to make ourselves vulnerable, to give up control. And to give up control is to admit the possibility of failure, of loss. It means realising that we could never have succeeded in the first place, because there was no game, and only love to play for.
In the words of Mark Nepo
“To listen is to lean in softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear”.
What a prayer and a devotion to offer our young, and ourselves.
So, you know, Stop Drop and Roll to it!
Remember, Your Voice. Their Imagination.