Recently, I was plowing around the house, trying to put away folded laundry and man my phone for incoming work emails while my kindergartener trailed behind, spouting off facts about sperm whales. Did you know sperm whales have the biggest brains on earth? How about that they can go 90 minutes between breaths? Or that their decaying cadavers can occasionally spontaneously explode? Neither did I, even though my son has told me these facts approximately 20 times.
The reason? It’s possible that even though I’m giving audible responses, I’m not exactly…listening.
And this time, he totally caught me. “Mama!” he wailed. “I feel like you’re not focusing! I feel like you’re just saying everything I’m saying back to me!”
He’s completely right, of course. See, while I pride myself on being an engaged parent, rarely willfully ignoring my kids and generally up for talking about the things that interest them, I realize I’ve made the common mistake of equating responding with conversing—a mistake that many adults take well into their professional and social lives. In this case, I’m saying things like, “Wow. Right. Biggest brain.” And, “Oh, yikes. 90 minutes.” But I could easily be parroting my husband’s plans for the day back to him while thinking about my upcoming Zoom call, or punctuating my colleague’s story on that Zoom call with “cools” and “no ways,” while browsing the internet for vintage Oriental rugs. The point is that I think I can get away with not paying attention, simply by repeating a snippet of the conversation back to the person who first said it.
When it comes to adults, this is absolutely unacceptable. And I/we need to approach listening as a skill to be practiced and improved upon daily. (Here are some helpful tips from a New York Times published “listening expert.”) But the issue with kids is that they talk so damn much. And to listen—like really listen—to everything would turn any parent coo-coo faster than you can say Ninjago.
So how can I better make him feel heard, without being the perfect listener 24/7? Because yes, sometimes I just need to fold laundry.
Here’s my new approach: When I’m listening, I’m listening. And instead of giving platitudes or repeating what he says to me, I try to respond with a follow up question: “Whoa! What animal do you think has the second biggest brain?” or “So, when you and Lola made that tower, how did you decide what color it should be?” He thrills to answer these queries, and his responses often teach me something I didn’t know about his life. (Lola is his science partner? Do they always trade crayons? News to me!)
Alternately, when I’m all tapped out and can’t listen to aquatic facts for another @*#!-ing second, I’m honest with him: “I’m needing a little quiet right now, Honey. Can you save this to tell me in ten minutes when I can really focus?”
It doesn’t always work, but at least he never (OK, rarely) feels like I’m tuning him out. And hey, now we all know a little more about sperm whales.