She stands as still as her excitement will allow, dancing from foot to foot, swinging arms and hands in punctuation of her ever-faster flow of words. She is three-years-old, and she has a story to tell. Her eyes widen and narrow as she makes important points. In her exuberance, she trips over every third word, making the story nearly impossible to follow.
Something about a house made out of rainbows and a queen with a green cape…maybe.
It may be a difficult story to follow, but it is easy to read her enthusiasm in the telling. Her creativity and joy. Her willingness to speak and desire to be heard.
If I turn my head away for a moment, she notices. She repeats her last sentence, so important it is to her that I be fully invested in the story. If I interject a question, she takes her time to answer at length. If I ask her to get to the point, she’ll surely be confounded; the telling IS the point.
So I listen, often because it makes me happy to do so, but also because she is talking to me. And there will come a day when she won’t have the same free-spirited attitude towards conversation with her mother.
It can sometimes be challenging to listen to a young child’s thoughts in truly attentive ways. They have so much to say – so many questions about the world and their place in it – that their constancy of words can be either hilarious or grating, depending on the circumstances of our own day.
But we have to remember that we’re setting the stage right now for our relationships with our children as they grow. Every time we choose not to take their spoken thoughts or stories seriously, we are making a small but lasting impression. And when we reply with sarcasm to an honest fear, doubt, or revelation of the heart, we’re teaching our kids something that they’ll never forget: their feelings are worthy of little more than being made into jokes.
To show our children that we regard their thoughtful honesty as inconsequential is to show them how to create distance from their parents. None of us wants to be confronted with the reality that our own lack of interest in hearing what our little ones have to say has helped create a teenager who doesn’t trust his parents with his thoughts.
Just as there are endless ways to demonstrate our desire to not be bothered by a child’s stories or questions, there are plenty of ways to show our respect and interest. Ways that will foster a relationship that can hopefully weather the teenage years of independence and rebelliousness without losing the ability to communicate.
No matter the age of the child, we must hold eye contact while they are speaking, acknowledging the importance of what they have to say. We must be active in the conversation, asking questions when warranted and giving feedback as needed. We must listen without judgment and hear without bias. We must take their words seriously, refraining from sarcastic comments and devaluing statements.
Our kids can tell when we are present in the conversation, and they will know when to seek more willing ears to burden with their thoughts. Which is when we’ll wish we’d taken their juvenile attempts at conversation more seriously.
So I’ll continue to listen to my three-year-old’s rambling stories. And I’ll encourage her to never let them reach their end.
Do you ever struggle to maintain interest with constant conversation from little ones? Do you have older kids who can prove my theory that if they're listened to with respect as children, they'll be willing to keep talking as teenagers? How do YOU keep the lines of communication open?