“It’s like she’s deaf or she has no ears or it’s like I don’t have a voice.” This was the complaint of my eight-year-old in regards to her little sister. Said between tear-filled sobs while we sat on her bed, she hugged her Comfy Dog, a sure sign that she was genuinely upset.
I found the actual problem to be rather inane—a typical fight between siblings. Big Sis had been playing with her Baby Alive when she decided she wanted to help me cook dinner (so long as she didn’t have to touch any meat). She told her sister not to play with her doll, which her sister promptly began doing as soon as Big Sis had her back turned. When Big Sis caught sight of her strolling the baby around the living room, she asked her again to not play with it. Big Sis came back in the kitchen to cut potatoes and Lil’ Sis took the doll and gave her a bath. Big Sis was horrified when she found out that her baby—who was supposed to be napping—was soaking wet in the bathroom sink.
On any other day, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to sit and listen to the lengthy re-telling of why my daughter was upset. I most likely would have told her she was being ridiculous, reminded her that her sister is only four, emphasized how they need to share their toys, and nipped the whole thing in the bud. On this occasion though, I sat down and patiently listened to the whole story. I tried to hide my smile as she struggled to pronounce “frustrated.” But honestly, I was proud of her for articulating her feelings.
My oldest daughter is my sensitive one. Sometimes she cries for no reason, and when you ask her for the cause, she will tell you that her body just feels like it needs to cry. When this happens, I worry her teenage years will be stained with black nail polish and hair dye.
Not too long ago when she was upset, I talked with her about voicing how she felt. On that day, she kept telling me she didn’t know why she was crying after I had spoken to her about helping around the house. I asked her, was she upset with me, or was she more upset with herself? She agreed that she was probably upset with herself—a hard thing for anyone to admit. I told her that in life, we need to communicate how we are feeling or we risk never being understood. And here we were, only a few weeks later, and she was doing just that: putting words to her feelings.
“It’s like I don’t have a voice.”
My heart ached. How many times in my hurry to offer a solution to her problems, to end the tears with a quick fix, had I made her feel voiceless?
In my own life, I know how important it is to feel heard and understood. In my marriage, I urge my husband to just let me talk—to listen without feeling like he needs to solve the problem. In my friendships, I struggle to tell the people I care about how things make me feel, instead letting those emotions fester and infect the rest of me. Yet in the day-to-day hustle, I know there are often times that I feign to listen to my kids. While they yammer at me from the back seat, I am thinking about what to make for dinner. I may throw out the occasional “yeah” or “wow”—but I am mentally elsewhere. When their story becomes too long winded, I grow impatient and urge them to wrap-it-up. Often when there is a catastrophe, I search for the quickest solution—time does not allow for me to hear each of their diatribes. I am judge, jury, and verdict. My rule is quick and swift.
Even though I knew that there was overcooked broccoli in the kitchen, on this occasion, something told me that I needed to hear her out. When the little one came in the room with her histrionics, I stayed my course despite the urge to cater to the baby. Big Sis told Lil’ Sis how she felt. Lil’ Sis was able to apologize and was prompted to say what she was sorry for. Both sisters told each other that they loved one another. While the problem wasn’t solved, there was a resolution.
Catherine M. Wallace, author of Motherhood in the Balance says that, “if you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them, all of it has always been big stuff.”
And so I resolve to be an active listener to my children. I know that there are times when I will feel compelled to be a “fixer” or times when I judge their problem as trivial, but I am going to remind myself that it’s not about the outcome and it’s not about what I think: it’s about making them feel that I have ears and that they have a voice—one that’s just as important as everyone else’s, including my own.