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Relationships • Parenting

Listening to Children

The suggestion that parents might not be listening hard enough to their children will strike the average mother or father as, at best, maddening – and at worst simply cruel. After all, a central part of the parental experience is likely to be noise: a continuous soundtrack of cries, exclamations, demands, shrieks, questions and tantrums. The chances of finishing a quiet sentence let alone a paragraph, are – for many years – negligible in the extreme. To add that one might, on top of it all, not be listening, seems like an absurd taunt designed to erode away any last vestige of sanity.

And yet, despite having had to put up with unholy degrees of noise, one might – the suggestion goes – still be missing the signal. Indeed, there might be a cacophony in the household precisely because the signal keeps getting lost. Things have grown noisy because there is, somewhere in the mix, a sustained level of deafness.

This is hardly anyone’s fault. The one thing children cannot be expected to do from the outset is speak clearly and accurately about what ails them. They hardly understand their own minds, let alone those of others. With only the barest grasp of what they are experiencing, they have no chance of imparting news of their emotions to those around them in way that might convince or correctly alert an exhausted or busy adult. Their communication styles veer from the very frustrating to the plain frightening; they can be:

Violent: I wish granny would die… Baby should go in the bin…

Hurtful: You only ever think about yourself… You’re boring…

Mean-spirited: Julie is a spastic… 

Rebellious: I’m never ever going back to school…

Illogical: I don’t care if we’ve come to Spain, I hate it here.

Irrational: I only want Daddy to open my yogurt pot…

If parents occasionally shut their ears, it’s not because they are mean, it’s because what is being said comes across as such a violation of their hopes for their offspring – and human nature more broadly. It can seem as though, after extraordinary sacrifices on their part, these parents have managed to put onto the earth a being who comes across as very far from kind, distinctly spoilt, ungrateful, fussy, strangely depressive and rather odd. It isn’t so much that the parents haven’t heard, it’s more that they are in a mode of hoping that what’s been said isn’t really true, and will particularly not be so if it’s batted away swiftly and blithely. This explains the archetypal way in which parents don’t listen: at a myriad of moments, they swerve away from a peculiar message that is being proferred to them in favour of imploring a child to be more sensible or, to put crudely, ‘more normal’. The following might occur:

Child: I’m feeling sad.

Parent: Don’t be silly, you can’t be, it’s the holidays.

Child: I’m really worried.

Parent: Darling, now that’s ridiculous, there’s just nothing to be scared of here.

Child: I wish there wasn’t any school ever ever.

Parent: Don’t be difficult. You know we have to leave the house by eight.

Child: I can’t bear Sam, he’s so fat, silly and ugly.

Parent: Now that’s not a nice thing to say, Sam is your little brother!

To repeat: it’s not deafness, it’s fear, fear that the child is saying something that doesn’t fit any understanding of normality or sanity. The parent is scared by evidence that the child is manifesting emotions or behaviours that will make their future very difficult: that they might become a child-murderer, an arsonist, a depressive, a neurotic, a scaredy-cat or a delinquent. They worry that their beloved child might become someone who isn’t polite to figures of authority or who never gets a job, whose life is ruined by unnatural exigencies and marred by excessive revulsions. That’s why these parents are not in a mood calmly to listen to plots to kill granny or never to return to school, to searing disappointment with the icing on the bun or to terrors about a jungle animal lurking under the sofa. It isn’t that they don’t care, it’s just that they’re in a rising panic about who their child might be turning out to be.

This suggests a route out of the deafness. It’s not about not listening per se, it’s first and foremost about a parent’s relationship to so-called normality. It’s about broadening one’s sense of this state to encompass a far broader range of behaviours than one might previously have considered; about seeing that sanity has a lot of room in it for madness, that it can be – considered with sufficient imagination – quite normal for us to be so angry with people that we think of wanting to kill them or that we can adore someone and at the same time wish they would go in the bin. Listening is about having the inner confidence to allow a child to be – as long as is necessary – a bit weird, a bit contrary, a bit frustrating and a bit lost; all of which belong to health and ordinary development.

A parent more reconciled to the ‘abnormality’ of sanity would have time for some properly unusual news emanating from the younger generation. They would feel that they could calmly listen to unconventional statements without the foundations of civilisation coming down. They might, in response to certain messages, answer with equanimity:

– ‘Maybe you were really hoping granny would be able to come to your birthday. I think we would all have wanted her to be here…’

– ‘I’m hearing that I’ve annoyed you a lot in some way… I’m not sure how but I love you deeply and maybe you’ll be able to tell me in a little bit…’

– ‘You’re very cross you have a baby brother now and everyone fusses over him. I felt that way when Auntie Jane was born – though I’m pretty good friends with her now. Maybe you will be with Sam one day. But that’s a long way from now…’

The more we listen to the ‘weird’ messages that children send us, the less hard these have to be pushed. The more we listen, the quieter they can be. A child who says they want to burn the school down doesn’t want to burn the school down, they want to be heard for their deep frustration that school is causing them. They will only become an arsonist if we continue not to listen – not if we do so amply and with tolerant good humour. Similarly, a child who has been flown to Spain at considerable expense and yet says, at the beach on the first day, that they don’t like it here at all and wishes they were home, they won’t grow into a spoilt ingrate if one takes the trouble to ask them why they’re feeling sad, if one can be robust enough inside about one’s parenting capacities to get down on one knee and say ‘tell me more about why you don’t want to be here…’ The child just wants a chance to share their discombobulation, their excitement and their fear at their own excitement. They just want to hear that their feelings at the surprisingness of being far from home by the sea can be confirmed by someone they trust. And once they’ve been heard, they’ll almost certainly head into the waves, they’ll be interested in the churros and hot chocolate at breakfast, they’ll remember to admire the palm trees in the hotel forecourt and the pretty lights by the pool. We need a chance to feel sad if we’re to be able to be authentically happy; we need to be able to say that we want the whole world dead in order gradually to become responsible and creatively kind.

What hard-of-hearing parents forget is that feelings, especially difficult feelings, invariably weaken when they’ve been aired. If parents would listen more carefully when a child said how much they hated a teacher, they might not want to be so cheeky at school any more. If they were allowed to moan a bit more about a grandmother, they might not mind visiting this cantankerous figure so much. Feelings get less strong, not stronger, as soon as they’ve been recognised. We scream when no one’s listened, never because they listened too much.

This kind of imaginative listening is at the heart of what love is and involves; we might define it as an energy to go beneath the surface of what someone is saying – which might be abrupt, perplexing or brutal – in order to locate a deeper meaning or intention, which is almost certainly more benevolent and more worthy of sympathy. This holds true as much in adult relationships as in parent-child ones. When we say that we hate a partner’s guts, it’s almost never the case that we do; we seldom say stark, vicious things to people unless we love them quite a lot. It’s usually a sign of immense hope that’s been dashed or shaken. We don’t hate our partner, we hate having to depend on them. We’re scared that they hold the keys to our happiness. What we’re truly trying to say to them is: ‘I’m scared that I love you so much and that you can rattle me so easily’. It’s just a paradox of the human brain that such an emotion may come out as: ‘Go away and die’. 

In this respect, listening well to another person may mean taking them avery seriously while not necessarily sticking only to the surface of their words. ‘I hate you’ may mean ‘I love you’; ‘I don’t care’ may mean ‘I’m very scared.’ Something important may be being said to us, but its full meaning may be to the side of the words that have actually been uttered. We might, along with listening, need to do a bit of translating. Many foreign languages are riddled with what translators call ‘false friends’ – words which strongly suggest they mean one thing when they in fact mean another. The Italian word baldo sounds to an English speaker as if it must mean ‘bald’ whereas it actually means ‘brave’. The French word ‘monnaie’ can seem as if it must mean money while it in fact refers to loose change. One of the key steps to successfully learning a foreign language is to get used to discounting the ‘obvious’ implications of certain words and to force ourselves to work harder at determining their true meaning. We need to practice something very similar around children. Here too, a foreign language can be involved and ‘false friends’ are rife, words and phrases where the meaning is not what we might initially suppose – and where we stand in need of a dictionary to help us with the critical task of translation. In the ideal future, we will have in our ears little devices that will translate children’s words into what they actually mean. We will hear (via our discreet, brushed steel appliances) not what they overtly say, but what they are attempting to communicate. And ideally they’d be wearing one too, for the challenge of translation is of course always a mutual one.

Until that time though, we’ll have to rely on a native vigilance. When a child says something that violates our sense of normality, we should refrain from shutting things down and simply respond: ‘Wow, tell me a bit more…’ When we’ve heard a very strong but surprising declaration (‘The baby should be buried alive…’), we should dare to say a: ‘Maybe what you want to say is…’ When they  declare: ‘I hate you all’ rather than retort ‘it’s bad to be angry’, we might look very unruffled and remark: ‘I can see you must be really frustrated…’ At the same time, we should start to note how often, despite being around our children, we have managed not to let their full reality into our consciousness, how often we have taken in one of their feelings and too quickly redescribed it as illegitimate, inaccurate or unacceptable.

One of the deepest of all human wishes is that other people should listen to what it is like to be us. We might add: we don’t want necessarily need them to agree with all our feelings or follow up on them, but what we crave is that they take a bit of their time to hear them. The more we have been heard, the quieter we can be. Most so-called bad behaviour on the part of children isn’t that at all. It’s a desperately unhelpful, but in its way entirely understandable response to not having been heard for what they have not – as yet – been able clearly or diplomatically to say.

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