It was 9 p.m. Bedtime was two hours ago and yet, here we were. I had just settled into the couch to get a little work done and I heard the familiar cry. “Mama!” my daughter wailed from her upstairs bedroom. I let a second or two pass, thinking maybe she wouldn’t call again. Yet, she did, a third and fourth time. Afraid she was going to wake up her younger brother sleeping down the hall, I crept upstairs and into her room.
“Mama,” she said matter-of-factly. “You told a fib. The clip in my hair is an elephant, not a zebra.” For reference, she’d called me upstairs an hour ago to confirm which animal shape was on her barrette. Upon further inspection, I realized she was correct. I explained I wasn’t fibbing but simply made a mistake, kissed her on her forehead and sent her to bed. I should have known the conversation wasn’t over.
She then launched into a diatribe about why it’s important not to fib, how she read an Arthur book where Arthur told a big fib in the classroom and why she wanted the zebra hair clip instead. At least 15 minutes had gone by and I could feel my blood pressure rising as my nerves grew shorter and shorter. I tucked in the covers all around her and kindly told her this was the last time I was coming upstairs and to please go to sleep. She did but I spent the rest of the night wishing I’d done things a little differently.
I wished I’d laid my head on the pillow beside her and let her tell me everything on her tiny heart. I should have listened intently as she spilled her free flow of emotions and questions and observations that she’d been carrying around all day. Instead, I thought only of my work and obligations and the ticking hand on the clock above her dresser.
I’m vowing to make it right and do better the next time, even when her stories are so long I can feel my hair turning gray as she tells them. Here are a few simple tricks I’m implementing.
1. Ask questions.
Listening is not one of my strong suits. It has never been. It especially isn’t a shining skill of mine when it’s nearing midnight and all I hear is rambling coming from my eldest. So, to mix it up a bit and to get her off a topic that she simply won’t let go of, I’ve been asking questions myself. The change of pace relieves us both for a minute. It also allows her mind to pause and rest between innings and allows me the opportunity to really dig into what she’s thinking. Turns out, kids are pretty brilliant and some of the stuff she tells me when the day is over and done with is astounding.
2. Set aside a conversation time.
I could be the most patient and understanding parent in the world, with listening ears as big as the sky but when I’m driving down a busy highway during rush hour, I don’t want to hear anything. I definitely don’t want to field any random questions, learn about the planets, or hear a detailed account of what happened during preschool story time. I need to focus. As such, I’ve tried to set aside a certain time and place to become our “Share Zone.”
For us, it’s her bed after we’ve said goodnight to everyone else in the family. I lie my head down, curl up in her blanket and let her spill it. It helps her know that no matter what, we can have that moment together at the end of the day. Then, when she just has to tell me about the new commercial she saw while I’m stuck at a left-hand turn with cars honking behind me, I can just tell her we’ll talk about it later — and I mean it.
3. Remember, it’s all big stuff—to them.
I’m usually tempted to only actively listen to my children when I know something’s seriously important. Does someone have a toothache? Did one child push the other down? Does he need to use the potty? There are many extraneous details shared throughout the day that don’t seem as important in comparison. Still, the one parenting quote that I can’t even say aloud without getting choked up says something along the lines of “If you don’t listen to your kids when they’re little and come to you with the little stuff, they won’t come to you with the big stuff once they’re big. Because to them, it’s always been big stuff.”
To them, describing the shirt their best friend wore to school today is just as important as learning how to read. There is no distinction. We’ll cross that priorities bridge when we get there, but for now, it’s helping me to remember that she’s not trying to be aggravating or annoying with her persistent chatter and constant questions. Her little mind is growing and expanding and she has to get it out and it’s essential that I lend my ear to listen.
I’ll admit, this has been a struggle for me. I’m as impatient as they come and most of the stories that I hear them recount are about as interesting as watching paint dry. Yet, I’m striving to be the best listener I can possibly be as we grow together. They need it and so do I and I’m excited to see what all they can teach me.