By T. R. Robertson
“Mom, your whole life is going away.” This statement was delivered by a 3-year-old boy.
“My whole life is going away?” his mother asked.
“Yeah. You’re going to die.”
Stacy confesses her first thought was, Gee, thanks, but only told him, “Yes, but I hope not right away.”
Out of the mouth of babes can come unexpected wisdom.
Then again, some of the things that come out of the mouths of children are just odd. Another of Stacy’s children got up from a nap one day and announced, “Now that I feel relaxapitated from sleeping, I can help you, Momma.”
Listening to young children can be inspiring, entertaining, and occasionally exasperating. It can also play a crucial role in your relationship with them when they’re older.
Listening Through the Years
When my own son was little, he would rattle on endlessly about firefighters and police officers. Every news report involving emergency services would prompt an imaginative retelling of the story. From the bare bones facts, he would stretch the details into a lengthy tale. He’d cover every aspect of their procedures and equipment and even create his own version of the 911 dispatcher’s conversations with the responding officer.
He learned early on that dear old dad might not be paying complete attention to him for the full duration of his monologue. If he thought my mind was wandering, he’d interrupt his soliloquy to ask me questions.
“Do you suppose they use keys on the jail door? Or do they have those numbers? How many people can they put in one cage at the jail? What happens if they get too many people?”
So I learned to transform his ramblings into conversations. It only takes a little effort to let a child know you care about them.
Now my children have grown older, and I watch my younger friends learning how to parent. Like me, many of these young dads find it difficult to always listen to their children. Some fathers shift all too easily into fake attention mode, if not total inattention. What they don’t get is that if you listen to your children when they’re small, they’ll be much more apt to talk to you about more important things when they’re older.
As Cody entered the teenage years, he no longer shared absolutely every detail of his life with me.
But all those silly conversations we carried on when he was little taught him I would listen to him talk about absolutely anything. When he returned from his outings with the junior police cadets, he knew I would sit and listen to him describe his experiences in detail. This included the time he reacted badly to being teased by a fellow cadet and was reprimanded by the police officer in charge.
And when he found himself apprehended by a police officer for trying to sneak into a theater, he called me. He talked to me about it in detail when he was back home and struggling to handle the embarrassment and consequences. He listened to me when I explained that by walking the fine line between legal and illegal, he was putting at risk the career of his dreams.
Those conversations with my teenage son wouldn’t have happened—or they wouldn’t have been as open and productive—if he hadn’t learned all along that Dad would listen to whatever he needed to say.
Today Cody is 30 years old. He’s made his career in law enforcement and emergency services. Whenever he’s been through a particularly exciting or harrowing experience on the job, he still talks to me. He knows there’s one person who has always been willing to listen.
Everyone Can Listen
Those young fathers in my circle of friends would tell you they’ve heard me talk more than once about the importance of fully engaging in conversations with young children. They’re glad they took my advice, now that their daughters and sons are entering their teen years.
It’s not just moms and dads, though, who can play an important role by listening to the children in their lives.
My grandmother seldom took time to listen to my ramblings when I was young. My strongest image of her is from the many times my brothers and I were told to take our foolishness somewhere else. Because of this, she lost any chance of having influence on us when we were older.
I watched the opposite dynamic at play with my wife’s parents. They had 19 grandchildren. At my father-in-law’s funeral, every one of those grandchildren told me stories about conversations they had with their grandpa. As little kids they shared a bowl of “tiger cereal” and conversation with Grandpa. As teens and young adults, they still talked to him, asking for his advice about life decisions.
Being related to a child isn’t a requirement for listening to them as they grow. Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, and adults in a neighboring pew can build strong relationships by starting when kids are small.
For over 15 years my wife and I hosted a life group made up of young couples a generation younger than us. Most joined the group when they were engaged or newly married and through the years populated our group with over two dozen children.
One little girl stands out among them as a prolific talker. She would ramble on about every little thing that went on in her young life. We sometimes worried she would forget to breathe and pass out. We all found her verbosity amusing. Occasionally her parents had to warn her about talking too much when it wasn’t appropriate.
My wife was especially good about welcoming the girl into her lap, patiently listening to her spin out a comprehensive tale of everything she had seen or heard or thought about in the past few days. Karen discovered the little one would indeed pause for a breath if her monologue was turned it into an actual conversation.
That little girl is a teenager now, living halfway across the world with her missionary parents. But Karen is who she talks to online when she’s dealing with the inconveniences of being a teen on the mission field. On the rare occasions when her family comes back to the States on furlough, she seeks out Karen. They’ll spend precious hours apart from everyone else, talking at length about things she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone else.
It all started with a talkative little girl in a rocking chair, with an adult who cared to listen.
Are there little children in your home, in your neighborhood, or in your church who like to talk? Maybe they’re just looking for someone willing to listen. If you intentionally choose to be their conversation partner, they’ll likely make the same choice in return when they’re older.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.