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Listen to your children

April 16, 2014 - Betsy Bethel
We all know we should listen to our children, acknowledging their observations — and therefore them — as interesting and worthy.

I know we can't do it 100 percent of the time. It's tough when they talk about the hilarity of passing gas or ramble incessantly about Star Wars or Minecraft or My Little Pony. Every parent tunes out a little bit during these soliloquies. Insert a strategic "wow" and a "huh" now and then and you're good to go.

In these instances, you don't want to completely ignore them, of course. You never know what you might learn. I find my daughter's capacity to imagine Minecraft scenarios mind-blowing. This morning on the way to school, while listening to some inane KidzBop song, for example, she made up an entire dance routine for The Stampy Club (her friends who worship the British dude who calls himself Stampy Longnose and makes Minecraft "Let's Play" videos on YouTube). She imagined them all dressed in cardboard boxes to look like Stampy and his gaming pals Lee, Amy Lee and Rosie, plus various creepers, zombies and other "googlies." She conjured coordinating moves, stage entrances and exits, and freestyle dancing. I could picture the whole routine.

I credit the chapter books we've been reading for the past couple years for helping nurture her creative mind. No one has a wider scope of imagination than Anne in "Anne of Green Gables," and the Chronicles of Narnia series does what I think all good works of art should do: blazes trails down your neuro-pathways, surprising you with its novelty and giving you the ability to stretch your mind in ways you never thought possible.

So, we know listening is important and enlightening. But do you listen to your kids when they aren't talking, or when they aren't saying what they mean? As loquacious as my daughter can be, she often clams up when she feels strongly about something, or she beats around the bush, not directly asking for what she wants. (She comes by all this honestly, unfortunately.)

An example of the manipulative "beating around the bush": If she wants a piece of chocolate that someone else has, she says: "I guess I can't have any chocolate" or "I really like chocolate." Or, when she wants to watch something, she'll make the statement, "I'm probably not allowed to watch anything right now." It's so frustrating to me that she doesn't say what she means.

When she clams up and says nothing at all, I've noticed it is usually when she is sad or her feelings are hurt. She will give me sad eyes or turn her back on me. She will play charades and make me guess what the matter is.

So I have developed a code word to help keep the communication flowing — SWYM, which is an acronym for "say what you mean." If she's trying to manipulate me into giving her something, I just say "SWYM," and she knows to ask for it outrightly and politely. If she is sad and silent, I remind her that when she's ready, that I'm listening and she can "SWYM." It has worked most of the time. As important as listening is, it's impossible if the other party isn't talking or isn't communicating effectively!

I had a new experience a couple days ago, however, in which Emma used a magazine article to communicate something that apparently had been bothering her for years. The April issue of Parents magazine had a feature by Michelle Crouch, "10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids." Now, being a parenting magazine editor myself, I understand the allure of publishing lists. They're fun; they're compact; they're easy to read. But I bristled at the use of the word "never." OK, yes, you should NEVER tell your child you hate him or you wish he wasn't born. I think we can all agree on that! But telling parents you should NEVER say "great job" or "hurry up"? Come on. I understand the theory, but in practice it's nearly impossible! And I don't think I should feel guilty for saying these things. I found the whole article off-putting. And I, feeling all superior, made a mental note not to publish such unhelpful articles in my magazine.

Yesterday morning, I noticed the magazine was folded open to that page in the magazine rack in the bathroom. I didn't do that. I'm sure it wasn't my husband. It occurred to me it might be 8-year-old Emma. She reads everything she can get her hands on. (We actually have to be careful what we leave lying around now, including the editorial page of the newspaper and the Men's Health magazines in the bathroom). I closed the magazine back up, because if it wasn't Emma, I didn't want her to in fact see that article and 1) realize all I've doing "wrong" and 2) think that the article was the gospel truth.

Later that morning, while she was getting dressed, we had what has become a regular occurrence — she puts on pants and then fusses about how they don't fit, whining and sometimes crying in frustration. All of a sudden, starting about three weeks ago, her pants have gotten too small — not too short, which is usually the problem with my 95th-percentile-for-height child; but too small around the waist. We started out with seven and were down to three pairs that fit, and now we are down to one. It was that one remaining pair — the pair I just bought a week ago — that she put on yesterday. They are pretty big, so she asked me to tighten the waistband (what did we ever do without adjustable waist pants!), so I did. Then she started whining and complaining that they were too tight. I said very calmly and with a smile (I have not always been calm through this pants debacle, oh no, but God helped me through this one), "Hold on, silly! I just adjusted them to make them tighter. Now all I have to do is loosen them up a bit!" So I did, and she was OK for a minute or two but then started squirming again. I began to feel my usual frustration welling up and said, still miraculously in a pleasant tone, "They're fine!" And that's when it happened. She didn't say a word but held up her finger for me to wait a minute, then she went into the bathroom. I knew immediately what she was going to do.

She brought the magazine into my room. I waited silently while she flipped through it. She at first couldn't find the article, but then she did something I never saw her do before, she looked in the contents section to find the right page. Smarty pants. She found it, laid it open to the "10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids," and pointed to No. 3 — "You're OK." I realize I actually had said "They're fine," but the sentiment was the same, and Emma knew it.

Now, I've said "you're OK" to my daughter since she was first learning to pull herself up and would fall down. For seven years, I've been telling her she's OK. When it was after a fall, I would follow it with "Jump up!" Looking back, I said it to my nieces (who are now 26 and almost 20), and my nephews (13 an 11), and all the kids I ever babysat. And my mom said it to me, a bazillion times. I said it to encourage them and keep them thinking positively. I said it because I didn't want them to be hurt. I said it because I didn't want them to cry. Emphasis on "I."

Another version of this sentiment is "It's OK." How many times have I said that while holding her and comforting her after some physical or emotional trauma?

Now she's telling me, via this ludicrous magazine article, that it's NOT OK?


I did not respond the way I should have, and I knew it. I spouted off dismissively that you can't believe everything you read in magazines and that I didn't like that it was saying you should "never" say these things. Every parent and child and situation is different, I explained, a little exasperatedly.

But then I stopped and realized what she was saying. Even though she didn't say anything. I asked her if it really bothers her when I say "You're OK"? She nodded.

I hugged her. I said I was sorry. She hugged me back. Now we really were OK.

Here's what the magazine said about "You're OK": "When your child scrapes his knee and bursts into tears, your instinct may be to reassure him that he's not badly hurt. But telling him he's fine may only make him feel worse. 'Your kid is crying because he's not okay,' says Dr. (Jenn) Berman, (Psy.D., author of 'The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.' Your job is to help him understand and deal with his emotions, not discount them. Try giving him a hug and acknowledging what he's feeling by saying something like, 'That was a scary fall.' Then ask whether he'd like a bandage or a kiss (or both).

I realized when I have said "You're OK," I have negated Emma's (and all those other kids') feelings. I have told them they and their feelings are not important. I have not given them the opportunity to tell me what hurts and why, and I have not offered them ideas for how to resolve the problem. (I do still believe in encouraging them to think positively and help them assess the situation before automatically burst into tears.)

It dawned on me: I have not listened.

And so, right then and there, I made a mental note, if at all possible, NEVER to say it again.


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