Summer is over and October pumpkins are getting ready to sport spooky faces. Ah, but I have an August memory that needs to be addressed. I have a “swimming hole” that I go to in the warmer months. Usually, I find it quite special for how relaxing and quiet it can be. It has been my oasis—a place of renewal and refreshment from the hectic busy-ness of the world order (or disorder, as the case may be).
Unfortunately, the world intrudes even here. As I was swimming my laps (I am a slow, plodding swimmer, going for long stretches at tortoise rather than hare speed), I noticed a little boy playing oddly along the wall. (I admit it. I am a psychologist and a writer and therefore my people observation continues on autopilot even when I wish I could turn it off.) The boy kept throwing large rocks in the water, then diving after them, staying down under for as long as he could. I knew the guards were aware, but I began to wonder where the parents were. Then the little boy, maybe seven or nine years old at most, attempted to directly win the attention of his father who was holding court talking quite animatedly to the people around him. The father paid no heed to his boy’s calls to him. Meanwhile, I noticed another, younger boy in a different corner of the pool, garnering heaps of attention from two older girls who were playing with him constantly. Weaving together this unhappy saga, I realized that these two boys were brothers, one getting attention, the other starving for it.
The older, rock-diving boy then started to circle some older kids trying to get accepted into their “society of swim”. He was only semi-successful at getting them to notice his existence. They weren’t mean to him; they just didn’t make any effort to be inclusive. Intermittently, the rock boy would call out to his busy talking dad to join him in the water. Twenty minutes before closing time, dad relents and finally peels himself from the lounge chair and deigns to enter the water. Rock son gets excited to see dad join him, but wouldn’t you know father goes over to the younger son and starts playing with him instead! This is the child that for an hour has had the loving attention of two sweet girls. Can you guess what happens now? Rock son acts out. He starts splashing around father and brother and jumping on dad’s back. Obtuse dad then yells at rock son for being annoying.
I tell this story as a message to all of us as parents. If we don’t see the antecedents to our children’s so-called disruptive behavior, we may be missing the point. In this case, if the father recognized that one son had already gotten plenty of attention and the other son was loudly pleading for it, he would have handled his older son entirely differently and the “annoying behavior” probably would never have occurred.
As parents, if we want our children to listen to us, we need to listen to our children. We are the model makers. And “listening” includes observing them in their everyday experiences, paying attention to their needs. If we listen, ironically they will hear us.