My cousin stopped chopping carrots and asked me, “Does your family have any special traditions during the holidays? Do you eat something special?” She was looking at me as if she really wanted an answer. She cared about what I had to say.
I hadn’t met this cousin before. At the time, I was in my early twenties, living near the D.C. area, and our family living in the South pushed us to meet one another. You know that old story, “Ohhhhhh… you should look up cousin Melody. She lives near you; you could do Thanksgiving together.” After enough nagging from our parents, we reached out, and now I was in her kitchen watching her chop carrots.
She was amazing. Melody was thoughtful, honest, and doing all the cool things I wanted to be doing when I was in my 30’s. Together, we went to concerts in the park, cool coffee shops, and even literary parties. More important than all those amazing events, Melody did something I hadn’t experienced often before.
She listened to me.
It was maybe the first time I finally understood what having a healthy conversation looked like. Melody was a listener. She wasn’t just waiting for her turn to talk. She wanted to know what I had to say. My relationship with her turned me into a different kind of person. A person who wanted to hear what others have to say, not just spend my time talking. This is something we all need; being heard means being truly seen.
In our early years, it is developmentally appropriate to be mostly self-centered. Small children (ages 6 to 13) have poor behavioral control, not understanding social graces. (1) The gift of my cousin’s amazing listening skills during my young adult years taught me something beyond this social grace. It led to honest conversation and emotional maturity.
My kids need to be seen and heard constantly. When I stop everything and look them in their eyes while they tell me their stories, their voices become more confident and their faces glow. I can see how their bodies relax, and we connect even when the story is ugly or painful. They need me to hear them. They need me to see them.
There is an eight-year-old child that comes to my house often.
Every single time she is here, she has issues. (In my house we call them dramas.) I have tried everything to avoid this “drama.” I’ve tried gently breaking up with the family, redirecting my kids to new playmates, and hiding in the bathroom for days (okay, not really that one.) Alas, this child will not give up, and the truth is that my kids like her. She is full of life, fun, and… well… drama!
As a result, when she comes over, I have to plan for crying, door slamming, and tantrums. It is always something. Honestly, when my kids get home from school, always with extra kids in tow, I don’t want to deal with anything additional at the end of the day,
Over the past few months, however, I have learned that this little girl, like me years before, needs someone to listen to her — that is what the drama is about. After many encounters with her, I have realized that she needs a reset button. When she is having a meltdown, I ask her to take a deep breath and just sit with me. Then, I completely change the subject, taking the focus off the drama. She quickly de-escalates and falls into the new topic at hand. It doesn’t take long. I simply listen to her. She eats up the attention and then when I see her body start to fidget, I release her from the conversation and tell her to go play. Drama over. She reminds me that everyone wants to be heard.
I fall into life’s chaos like everyone else, and I often forget that I need to stop and listen. Even though I was taught this lesson in early adulthood by my lovely cousin, I don’t practice it enough. It is hard to remember that we need to make that connection. I have a long list of tasks that have to be completed, and sometimes I am not available to stop and listen. I want to be better about it. I also want to be better about not talking so much myself. It is the listening that matters.