Learning to listen

imageCredit: Juliane Lacknett

I walked into my apartment, after being gone most of the day, to find my bewildered and frustrated husband and my two-year-old in the midst of an epic tantrum that had been going on for almost an hour. My son was angrily repeating, “boy,” over and over while pointing to our television. It took mere minutes to figure out what that meant and find the program my son wanted to watch.

My husband often jokes that my toddler and I speak the same language. Whether it’s a certain toy or something to eat, I can decipher my son’s wants and needs from just a word or two. Spending most of my waking (and sleeping) hours with my son has taught me the intricacies of his speech, body language and emotions.

I would like to think I am a good listener. I try to give the talker my full attention and really hear what he or she has to say. However, I am human and can be distracted by other things on my mind, not recognize the importance of what’s being said or simply not be interested. I find myself tuning out and missing the speaker’s intention.

Becoming a mother taught me how to listen again. When my son was a newborn, my son’s survival was dependent on my ability to understand his needs. He was a long way from speaking, so I had to learn to recognize his cues, from the subtle movement of his lips to his piercing cries. If I misinterpreted him, or worse, ignored him, he might not have thrived.

I noticed that as my son grew older and found more ways of expressing himself, his desires became more complex. No longer was he just communicating his basic need for such things as food, sleep and comfort. He had a better understanding of his world and his role in it. He could not only express his needs, but also his wants, his fears and his joys. I soon learned to distinguish between his cries for food, his cries for pain and his cries simply for affection. While the quickness of my response depended on the cry, I strove to acknowledge my son’s feelings, and let him know that I heard him and he was valued.

My son has an ever-expanding vocabulary and is quickly learning the nuances of expression. He knows how to turn on the charm when he wants to do something that may not be appropriate. He can work himself up over something as simple as not having the right spoon. He even knows how to lie. With just a few words, my son has already mastered the broad complexities of communication.

I find that if I really listen, I don’t need to understand everything my son says, as communication is much more than words. It is expression; it is emotion; it is how we relate to one another.

My son has taught me that listening is more than just hearing someone’s words. Listening is about taking the speaker in, appreciating their feelings and understanding what they need. I wonder how often I spoke with someone and missed out on what he or she was saying just because I failed to listen. I wonder how often this has happened to me. I can only imagine that for a child, it must be awful to feel unheard. Honestly, it’s pretty awful no matter your age.

I hope that my son understands that whether he is hurt and needs immediate comfort or is throwing a fit that I choose to ignore until he calms down, I am listening, and he is acknowledged.

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