One evening I arrived punctually at an editor’s house to talk about a manuscript. “I’ll be a few minutes,” she said as she opened the door. “I’m having a conversation with my daughter.” I sat on the couch in the living room to wait. I could see her sitting at the dining room table talking with a blond girl around eleven years old. The girl was speaking in a hesitant, but urgent, way while the mom leaned toward her, as if she wanted to catch every word. It was the kind of listening I had rarely witnessed.
I was struck by the expression on the mother’s face. There was no sense of time pressure or hurrying, even though she had a guest. I could see that she was checking in on her daughter’s emotions as she encouraged her to continue. If I could have interpreted her nonverbal cues, the message would be “You can tell me anything, and I will still love you just as much. There is nothing more important to me than hearing you.”
Children’s feelings often seem silly to our adult minds. (“Why would you be upset about that?”) In addition, they often choose the most inopportune times to talk. We have a colleague waiting. We have to be somewhere in five minutes.
Yet the importance of stopping to give our full attention to children was highlighted in a film called The Joy of Parenting that I saw about a decade ago. It was made by Dr. John Gottman, one of the preeminent researchers in relationship health. The movie shows parents interrupting their activities to listen to children when they are trying to express some feelings. It highlights the landmark findings of Dr. Gottman’s research on parent-child interactions.
He found when adults took the time to stop, listen to, and validate children’s emotions, the result was less stress hormones in their bloodstreams – not just when they had an adult’s attention, but all the time. Dr. Gottman’s clinical findings indicate the need for a new priority: understanding that hearing what children are saying is just as important as everything else we do.
The editor I observed was teaching her daughter, in that five-minute conversation, that she was worthy of being heard. Having the ear of her parents and teachers, the girl will be more likely to speak up in other situations, to listen to her own inner voice, to have confidence in her own knowing.