In the course of my conversation with my friend, Joy, (a most fitting name for her,) she brought up the idea that people need to create inner space. If you think about all the “stuff” that crowds our minds and hearts, you can readily see why we need to clear it all away to make space within. Call it breathing room, call it respite from our worries and woes, call it peace of mind and heart, call it what you will, it is in those precious moments that we are willing to wipe away all the stressors, heartbreaks, disappointments, rambling thoughts, and the minutiae of the daily busyness of our lives. It returns us to the unburdened self, the uncluttered self. Many people achieve this “clearing out” by meditating. Others pray. And still others find ways to do it with imagery or listening to calming music. With a little creativity and practice, each of us can find a way to do it on our own.
Another reason to free up our inner space is to make ourselves fully present and available to our children. How often have your children had to ask you if you are listening? How often do they ask their fathers to put the newspaper down while they are trying to talk to him? Children know when we are only half listening to them; our expression, our tone of voice, and our lifeless “uh-huhs” give us away.
I have written about the importance of paying attention to children many times to stress how our wholehearted and sincere interest in them makes a world of difference to them; it makes them feel that they are important to us; it gives them a feeling of worth. By sweeping away the distractions in our minds and hearts, we not only give them the gift of being heard, we also learn about them – who they are, what they think, what they feel, what they experience, and what they value. If, while they are talking to us, we let our minds drift away to think about tonight’s dinner, or the next day’s appointments, or just reminisce or sulk or worse still, interrupt them to teach another of Life’s Big Lessons, or to argue with their point of view, we have lost a golden opportunity to know them. We may believe we know our children because we know what behaviors to expect from them. But how many of us know what their behaviors mean to them?
Back in the 1950s, I went to PTA meetings in schools throughout Baltimore County and presented programs to promote the Parent and Family Life Education parenting groups sponsored by the Baltimore County Public Schools. I took one child from each grade to be on a panel. The last question I asked them was, “What is the most important thing in the world to you?” Starting with the oldest child, they gave answers like, “my dog,” “my cat,” “my grandmother,” and finally, the first-grader, slapped her hand to her chest, and answered with a proud and resounding, “me.”
At the end of their presentation, I noticed many parents in the audience were taking notes. I thought they were writing down the cute and clever answers, so curious, I asked them what they were writing. One woman said she was writing down the questions I had asked because she wanted to find out how her child would answer them. More specifically, she added that she wanted very much to know how her little girl would answer the last question. I hope I inspired a desire in all of the parents to discover more about their children.
Children sense when we are listening half-heartedly, or with minimal interest. The most common complaint among adolescents is that their parents don’t listen. They yearn to be heard and to be understood. They want us to know who they are as they know themselves to be. I have spoken to many people, young and old, who believe that parents do not see their children as they are, but see them only as they wish or want or need them to be. Listening connects us one to another.
Imagine then, the sheer joy your children will feel when they know they have your undivided attention. Imagine their deep appreciation when they know you set everything aside to make room for them. And imagine how gratified you will be, when they make room for you.