Putting a hippo to bed
I’m putting my 3-year-old to bed. I’m ready for lights out right when he informs me he’s a hippo. “Uh huh,” I half-heartedly mutter. I am too tired for this.
“MOMMA! I said I’m a hippo!” Oh, he means business! I get a second chance.
I think about how it feels to not be heard, when I’m spilling my guts and someone glances out the window, or at their watch, or at their phone. When I’ve poured my heart out, but the listener misunderstands me. My babe needs me to really listen.
So I muster everything I’ve got to sprint across the finish line of our day. I try to imagine what a fun mom would do and reply, “What do hippos do to get ready for bed?”
“Hippos like to sleep in mud!” So we grab our imaginary shovels and pretend to slop mud into his bedsheets.
“Do hippos like their tummy rubbed when they’re falling asleep?” He rolls over and lifts his shirt up, pulling my hand over to his tummy. Soon, he’s fast asleep, snoozing like he’s in a bona fide zoo exhibit. It took a little dose of playfulness, and we both got what we wanted. He felt heard and understood. I got my baby to bed for the night.
Mom holds the plan for the day
A million times a day, I need to be reminded to really pay attention and truly listen to my boys. There are endless distractions. My agenda is of utmost importance because, of course, I’m the mom. I have the plan for the day. I know when we have time to be silly and when it’s time to get down to business. I can get in the zone, and when I do, it is such a challenge to pause long enough to really listen to any comment that wasn’t my idea.
At our house, we have trouble listening from start to finish. We interrupt each other constantly. We yell over each other, thinking that will help us communicate. We pretend to listen but nod our heads without truly letting the words sink in. We completely miss the bids for affection and attention that are veiled under pleas to play cars, to “watch how fast I can run,” or to hear another animal fact.
Author Bryant McGill wrote, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”
His words cause me to wonder how the simple yet impossibly challenging task of listening to my children might begin to change the world. How much more does a child thrive when he knows his momma is listening? Listening not just to hear words, listening not just to receive information, listening to read between the lines and hear the heart behind the matter. My children deserve that kind of respect from me.
What I hear you saying is
I know I didn’t create this strategy, but I can’t believe how well it works. When kiddo is melting down and emotions are on high alert, the only possible hope I have of diffusing a tantrum is simply repeating what I hear. (I guess my therapist is on to something with that classic line “what I hear you saying is … “) I repeat what I can make out between my child’s sobs. Not that I agree with it. Not that I think it makes any sense. Not that I condone the outrage.
“You are mad because your neighbor is playing outside and you aren’t allowed to go out.” His shoulders relax. “You get me, Mom!”
Later in the day, “You are sad because it’s time to take a bath.” He nods. “I interrupted your play time and you didn’t get to finish what you were doing.” He looks at me, surprised, relieved, and I can see his anger shifting. Being heard and understood transforms the moment. What had been a moment of conflict is still a hard moment, but it is now a moment of connection and understanding. This listening thing feels like a magic elixir.
Most moments of most days, this feels like an impossible task. A hidden camera in our home would most often show us shouting “I was talking first!” or “Are you listening when I’m talking to you!?” That’s real life, chaotic, messy, and loud. I’m not sure any one of us feels heard. Each of us grasping for attention where they can get a piece.
When I do listen well, it is usually out of selfish intent. Knowing that listening will make bedtime a bit easier, for example, like in the aforementioned case of the hippo. I theorize that if I listen with respect to what my children have to say, perhaps they will return the favor and respect me when I’m talking to them. Hoping that listening to them today will foster a relationship where they see me as a trusted listener even in their teenage years when, as legend goes, boys tend to get a little less chatty with their mommas.
But even in those moments when I put on my listening ears for selfish reasons, I am always reminded of the power of that simple act. When we set aside our agenda for a moment, we offer our sacrificial love. When we open our mind to the thoughts of our loved ones, we are giving the gift of respect. When we not only process the information given, but also seek to understand the heart behind the message, we honor the speaker’s experience.
In parenting, I’m learning that listening is a powerful elixir. Perhaps we could stand a dose of the same in our adult relationships. Personally in our marriages, our neighborhoods, and among friends. Even more so, as the brokenness in our communities has been on display in a mighty way the past few months, respectful listening could be transformative in the public sphere, throughout our communities, in the political arena, and for those whose voices have been methodically silenced!
May we lean in. May we set aside distractions. May we clear our preconceived notions and open our mind to surprises. May we mute our responses, our retorts, and our defensive arguments. Zip your lips for just a moment, mommas, listening is a powerful elixir.