How well do we really hear our children?

A month ago I picked up Dave Cullen’s Columbine, considered the most definitive account of the Columbine massacre that took place 13 years ago last Friday. Like many I reacted with horror but then detached interest when the story came out. Of course, I was still relatively young then, and nowhere near parenthood. Now a mother, and a mother of a school-aged boy, I flew through the book with vested interest.

The mastermind and leader of the killings, Eric Harris, was confirmed by experts to be a textbook psychopath: cold, heartless, calculating. The second killer, Dylan Klebold, proved to be more complex. In fact, the initial profile of him sent chills down my spine: He was bright, curious, athletic, sensitive. He loved Lego and origami. It was irrational, but I shivered because that just described my son. How can a killer have started out this innocent boy, so similar to my own?

To my own surprise, I finished the book without judging the parents of the two boys. Unlike what some might think, Eric and Dylan were not raised in broken or abusive homes. Their parents were middle class or upper middle class and well educated, loved their sons, made efforts to discipline, and appeared to have paid attention to their children. And yet the question lingers on every parent’s mind: How could they not have seen this coming? Could we be as equally blind?

I look at my own parents. My father, a product of his generation, worked 80 hour weeks and left the childrearing to my mother. My mother devoted her life to caring for my brother and me, “dedicated” being an understatement to describe her. And yet, for cultural and generational reasons, my mother did not “hear” us much less listen to us. She was not raised in a culture or in a time where concepts like self esteem and depression were even conceivable. How can you hear what you don’t know exists?

But I, on the other hand, born into a cotton candy pop psychology bubble, would know. I’ve gone through periods in my life where self-help books lined my shelves, and I continue to talk like an amateur psychologist. I only amp up the psychoanalysis now that I’m a parent: Have I told my son enough times that I am proud of him? He was a little quiet after school today – did something happen with his friends? Don’t tell him to drink milk so he’ll get bigger – you’ll teach him to pursue a false body ideal!

And even so, as emotionally in tuned to my child as I think I am, I’ve missed some critical spots.

Like when Fred was about to start kindergarten, and he began acting out and throwing tantrums. I was taken aback, shocked at my 5 year old’s new aggression. We scolded and threatened and wondered if it was heightened testosterone, until Max brought up the idea that maybe Fred was simply anxious about starting school. Of course. We’d made such a big deal over kindergarten, telling him how exciting it was. But given his limited experience as a person, he had no idea what kindergarten was. We took him to an ice cream social at his new school, let him meet his teacher, and, like that, the aggression disappeared.

Then when he started first grade he began showing signs of more extreme stress: nervous tics, inability to sleep long. “I never get a day off!” he would shout, and we felt the guilt, but we plugged on with his activities, having convinced ourselves that they were non-negotiable. He had to go to Japanese school, to keep up his language and culture. He had to study Chinese, to keep up his language and culture. He had to stay with soccer, to build up his physical strength and teamwork skills. We finally took him to a behavioral pediatrician, who said to us, “Fred’s fried. He’s not telling you with words, but he’s telling you with his body.”

I look back on that time – just a year ago – with shame. Shame because I’d prided myself on being such a good mother, a mother who can see her child through and through. But maybe what I need is not so much to see – especially only what I want to see – but to really hear, and to really listen.

Part of Momalom‘s 5-for-5 writing challenge on “Listening.” Click here for other fabulous bloggers’ posts.

10 thoughts on “How well do we really hear our children?

  1. It’s never easy, is it.

    Our family spends so much time with the latest research…we don’t praise work but we praise effort. We don’t label anyone as smart because we’re trying to teach that the brain is a muscle that needs exercise to be good. We don’t praise art because self esteem seems to be related to pride in self not pride from others. We don’t do homework because apparently it makes kids worse students.

    We keep finding out something new and completely changing our approach. Must make our child absolutely confused. 😉

    I’m sure they’ll all be fine, though. We’re trying *awfully* hard and that has to be good for something, right?

  2. Oh, CECI: My beautiful friend. FORGIVE.

    I know it’s easier said than done, but this will weigh your heart down. I just finished a post for another site, on forgiving ourselves as mothers…because it robs us of joy. Our minds can’t help but feel affected by all the condemnation and disappointment.

    We are wonderful mothers…not perfect, we make mistakes, we do.


    I remember when Xavier was being bullied in the 4th grade and I never picked up on it. I still can’t believe that, but I never did.

    It took a DOCTOR to tell me he was being bullied. I would take him in once a month for stomach aches, I’d always get a call at lunch time that his stomach hurt, I’d find him awake in the middle of the night, his light on in his room, I’d pick him up from school, and he’d have nothing to say, there would be class birthday parties and he’d never be invited, I’d unpack his lunchbox and it would always be full, he’d wake up for breakfast and not eat a thing.

    I list all of these so you can see HOW I MISSED THE MESSAGE TOO.

    I missed it, too, Ceci: we are good mothers, but we make mistakes.

    I love you. I really do.

  3. Yeah, I hear this. When my son was not quite 3, I was 7 months pregnant with my daughter, he started a new school AND his beloved nanny moved to Brazil. A few weeks into his new school, the head teacher called and told me that he was “acting out” and “attacking” other children. I couldn’t believe it so I went to see for myself, and she was right. I told her what was going on at home and she said “I think we need to listen to Isaac.”

    Dear God, how I still remember that moment. I was seeing all the signs but not listening to what he was trying to tell us.

    But don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s all part of the learning curve…

    Great post

    Delia Lloyd

  4. It’s hard sometimes to really listen, to realize that we haven’t been even when we thought we were. I remember judging the parents of the Columbine boys initially. How could they not know? Were they allowing too much autonomy? Were they not paying attention, giving in to whims, treating their children like friends rather than parenting as an adult? It’s hard when we don’t know the specifics of another person’s existence. Oftentimes, it’s even harder to do so within the walls of own homes. You’ve captured the ups and downs of this perfectly — how not only do we need to listen/hear our children better, we need to award ourselves the same gift.

  5. “How can you hear what you don’t know exists?” I love this quote as well. I just wrote it in my journal. I read a book by Jodi Piccoult (I think it was called 19 minutes) which was about a high school shooting. It really humanized the parents & different aspects of every parent’s worst nightmare. Their children not only lost their lives, but even before that they seem to have lost their hearts & souls, you know?

    We pray for our kids’ health and safety but we also pray for them to be empathetic human beings and to not cause harm to anyone else. I felt for them because I know I struggle sometimes to “read” my kids and try to address everything that needs to be addressed. “Am I instilling enough self-confidence into my children?? Did I give them enough positive affirmation and attention today? Am I teaching them to care about others and be kind? Maybe we should be doing more?!” and on and on an on….

  6. There’s so MUCH we don’t know as a parent. Sometimes I feel like my first born is such a guinea pig. It’s so unfair! I don’t know if I listen better to my subsequent children, but I do know that I’m easier on myself for the things I don’t hear the first time. I’m so happy to have found you! Thanks for linking upl

  7. This is such a great post, Cecilia. I think it’s sometimes hard to, as parents, find the middle ground in our understanding of the “results” of our parenting. On the one hand, our children are impacted by our parenting choices. They are impacted by the foods we choose to feed them, the words we say to them in praise of their deeds, etc. On the other hand, our children are not puppets. They can not be manipulated to be something that we envision them becoming because we do x,y,z as a parent. It’s tough. And complex. But, I think the road you’ve taken with Fred is the right one. The best we can do is listen to our children. We can hear them and act accordingly. So often, we try to convince ourselves that we always know better than our children, but we don’t ALWAYS know. Sometimes, we have to humble ourselves and listen with our ears, hearts, and minds to them as thinking human beings.

  8. I loved this Cecilia! There’s so much noise in parenting – what we know, what we think we know, what society’s telling us, what our kids are telling us, what we hope to see – that sometimes it’s difficult to really see or even hear.

    Even when we think we’re all eyes and ears.

    I remember when trying to potty-train my daughter. It was harder than I thought until I realized all that was going on in her life – new house, new baby, my mom moving in with us – it was no wonder she didn’t want to move on to the next milestone. She was thrown into all these changes and she was holding on to whatever she could so there’s some semblance of normalcy. But I didn’t think about any of this at first.

    I like how the Empress tried to make you forgive yourself first and foremost. I think that’s important too. In parenting we will fail and we will fail often. But we can’t dwell on that which we could’ve done better but instead to learn from our experience and do better for our kids in the future.

    But easier said than done huh? 🙂

    So glad to be reading your words again!

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