My earliest awareness of the unmet needs of children of all ages was conjoined with the awareness of their powerlessness. It became a roaring force for me in early adolescence as I looked around and observed that too many adults in my neighborhood were failing their children and, it seemed that this was, in large part, because we, as children, only became fully human when our chronological age increased to 17, although this could vary depending on geography or whether the issue of military enlistment, alcohol or tobacco was being debated.
My observation is that children are born fully human but we fail to acknowledge this by neglecting to bestow those graces, courtesies and dignity that we give to most adults every day. Obviously, I’m not implying that our babies, toddlers and teens are fully prepared for all of the aspects that are implied in the word “human.” I am saying that parenting and an essential component of preventing child abuse begins at birth: listening. Few actions have more power.
Ever heard that old tale of spoiling a baby if you respond to every cry? I’ve never found that to be true. Cries are almost always about a need. Although identifying the need may take a little detective work, when the cries are acknowledged, they almost always stop. I need a dry diaper. I’m cold. I’m hungry. I need comforting. These are the needs and reasons for infants and, once met, the baby learns that their adult will take care of them and the parent-child relationship is quietly strengthened, diaper by diaper and feeding by feeding.
As our babies become toddlers and teens the need to listen becomes more acute and every bit as important. Toddlers are very busy people. They’re learning to crawl, walk, get along with others and they’re finding their words. Until they have enough words to talk, they will use behavior to speak for them and adults often have to listen by spending enough time in their presence to know what the toddler is saying. We see way too many toddlers who have been abused by someone they know or love that sometime may have been avoided had we, as parents and adults, allowed a child to choose who they want to hug or be near instead of assuming that the toddler is too young to know who they like or dislike. We would listen to a friend who did not like another individual and yet, we deny the young that dignity and power.
Now I come to one of my very favorite age groups, the adolescent. Listening can be really difficult here. First, because you won’t have as much time with your child. They’re getting ready to use those wings and independence that we’ve worked so hard to foster and their schedules are packed. We lose precious opportunities to listen because we’re too busy talking at them. It’s disheartening to know that many clinicians and child development experts believe that most of the warnings and do’s and don’ts have all been taught years before. This is our chance to learn about friends, values, and problems. Now, it’s very important to find time to listen by being with your teen. You’ve no doubt heard about the power of the long car ride, but there’s also opportunity to sit nearby them at events or go with them to events.
I’ve known the struggle, challenge and happiness of every age and if we’re really lucky, our children grow up to be people that we like. In late December, when I started writing, I joined my grandchildren and their friends on a skiing trip. For me, the highlight of the trip was just sitting nearby or working in the small kitchen when, while stirring spaghetti, I had a thousand heart squeezes as I listened to them chatter and knew that the joy far outweighs any challenge. Just as important, when listened to, children are more apt to listen.