26. Listening to Children

Children need to be heard. Caught up in the juggling acts of teaching, parenting, and/or myriads of other adult activities, we lose sight of that truth, or let it slip into a lower priority. From what I’ve seen and experienced, it’s often overshadowed by another truth: we adults need to be heard. It’s not something one outgrows, although many adults and children learn a kind of despair that makes them harder to hear.
If children aren’t heard, they resort to all kinds of strategies to be heard, or they give up. Later, they become adults. Unless we were raised and schooled by a team of saints, we weren’t consistently heard, and our behaviors strongly reflect that sad reality. We tell children to be quiet so that we can be heard. True, that’s often an appropriate thing to do – when our messages are legitimately higher priorities.
But that’s not the only reason we try to keep children quiet. They may be saying important things we’re not ready to hear. We grown children haven’t been heard enough, and we’re bigger, more powerful, and (believe it or not) louder. So we get heard – if not the content of our messages, at least our powerful sounds. And important things children say are missed.
As a volunteer in Northampton and Amherst, I get to spend almost all my time listening to children. I admit that it’s a luxury that goes with not doing report cards, recess duty, conferences, and all the other things teachers must do instead of teach. In many ways, though unpaid, I’m a better teacher than I’ve ever been.
It was time for literacy activities. A first grader had just come in from recess looking quite upset. He had not had snack, and he was pretty upset; you could see it on his face. He’s quite a handful when upset feelings take over. Adults are put into a position where they must control him. But I was there at the right moment, in the right frame of mind. Using my best Fred Rogers, Chaim Ginott cool, I said, “Jeff, you look pretty upset.” He mumbled, “Yeah.” He told me he had had no snack. On one level, too bad. He’d forgotten to use snack time for snack. On another level, I wanted to sneak him into a corner where he could have snack.
But I did not say, “Too bad,” and I did not sneak him into a corner. Instead, I said, “I know how you feel. I hate it when that happens to me.” The clouds over his head cleared away almost instantly. He smiled and went over to his literacy activities. I felt like Superteacher.
Listening to children is a real challenge. I don’t congratulate myself too much (although I do congratulate myself), because listening to children is all I do in the schools. My need to be heard is satisfied in other ways, and I’m not constantly generating new priority items as I did when I was parenting, teaching, and juggling all my roles. As a parent and teacher, I did my best to listen to my children, your children, and all you grown-ups. If I slipped up with some of you, I’m sorry. Now that I have time to listen, and have shed my need to be defensive, I find that listening to children is even more rewarding. And it’s often fun. If you haven’t found time to do it as much as you want and they need, I hope you can soon.

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