Listening as a Sign of Respect

We were on vacation up at my sister's house in the country, and my two children were in seventh heaven chasing around the big yard with their cousins, occasionally getting me to join in as monster, adding even more excitement to the chase. I had gone into the house for something and came out to discover that an in-law whom the children knew slightly had arrived. My three year old was bursting with pleasure at the game, and eagerly telling this man all about what they were doing. He listened for a bit, made one non-committal response, then, right in the middle of this eager offering, turned his attention to something else completely. Clearly, a barely-known small child's uninvited conversation just didn't merit further acknowledgment.

I was outraged. It had been a thrill to see the ease with which my child had initiated a conversation with this grown man. I had been in the midst of admiring his pleasure, his relaxed assertiveness, his confidence, when I realized that none of this held any value to his chosen listener. I'm sure some of that outrage was generic maternal reaction to anything that might slight or hurt my precious child. But that wasn't all it was.

I think I was witness to a very common, but still unacceptable, act of rudeness and disrespect. Who would just turn away from another adult, right in the midst of the conversation, without any acknowledgment? Even when the talker is a total bore and there's nothing in the world that we'd rather do less than listen, we handle it differently. We acknowledge, we smile, we make a polite excuse for being unable to listen any longer, and only then do we make our escape.

With small or young people, however, we often don't even notice that they're talking at all. Or we notice just enough to turn and comment to somebody else how cute they are--right in the middle of their sentence Or we trivialize their observations in a way that we would never dream of doing with our adult neighbors, coworkers, or relatives. Why do we treat children so differently? Why should their excitements, their discoveries, their thoughts and observations--their conversation--be received with so much less respect?

I guess it's not surprising, given our culture. It tends to view children as a slightly sub-human species, gradually evolving as they age into full-grown human beings. But I think that's doing them a tremendous disservice. I'm more inclined to believe that it's our children that we should look to as our models--for their fresh intelligence, their creativity and curiosity, their excitement and wonder about life, their ability to love. And I think that the most powerful way we communicate to our children about how to treat other people lies in how we treat them. If we want them to truly and deeply respect other people, then it behooves us to respect them that much. And this means, among other things, listening to what they say.