Patience and the Vulture

vultureI remember a cartoon I saw years ago, of two vultures in a tree. One turns to the other and says, "Patience, my a**! I'm going to kill something." A quick search showed me it's still pretty popular. I found dozens of memes, some with drawings and some with photos. 

"Has she gone mad?" you may be wondering. "What can a vulture have to do with nurturing and teaching young children?"

I promise you, there's a connection that is immediate...and another that comes with a wider lens.

The vulture is me. It's you. It's all of us grown-ups who hover over children, waiting to pounce upon an opportunity to affirm the "right" answer. We want to teach, correct, or shape knowledge or behavior in some way, and--to children, I'm convinced--we must sometimes seem like a flock of vultures circling.

As our highest priority, we want them to learn how to be correct, to have the right answers at the right times. Eager to protect them with knowledge, we shove it into their little eyes and ears every chance we get...patience be hanged!

Vividly, I recall a visit to the home of some young parents and their three-year-old daughter. For the first 20 minutes, our activity consisted of a running quiz for little "Sasha." How old are you? Show me 3 fingers. What shape is this? How many cars are there? What color is your dress...? You get the idea, eh? You've probably either witnessed similar "Our Brilliant Child" quizzes, or been one of the adults giving one. When many young parents are together with their young children, these quizzes can become a sort of competition. Questions come faster and faster, and the difficulty level amps up and up, like successive rounds of a TV game show.

Is it any wonder we find ourselves, as the quizzing adults, feeling impatient? Especially with "wrong" answers?

Here's what I've had to admit: I am the vulture, waiting to pounce. I seize the moment when I can achieve my goal, ignoring the child's process.

Just recently, I found myself frustrated as a four-year-old repeated the same phrase four times, stuck in a little verbal feedback loop and unable to go on with his thought...yet. I wonder now: what might the end of that thought have been, if I hadn't moved us along my planned pathway? Did I miss something brilliant, or beautiful, or poignant? Did I fail to hear something original and innovative, in the interest of my chosen and predictable outcome?

Young children do speak and act in ways that bring unique perspectives, even valuable insights, into our lives. They occassionally reveal brilliant, beautiful, poignant, incisive, perceptive, thoughtful depths that surprise us adults. A child's wisdom, not yet weighted down by a lifetime's emotional baggage, can go straight to the deep truth of a matter. If we have the patience to hear them, children can cut away all the BS we adults pile up, to feel safe and in control. 

And what must it be like, for the young child, to have adults who listen--really listen--without interrupting, at all? Do you know what that's like? Have you recently (or ever) had the experience of sharing your thoughts or feelings with someone who really  listens? Have you been listened to by someone who fully engages in listening...and then asks to hear more? More common in adult conversations are these forms of "vulture listening:"

  • Thinking of a similar experience or feeling; responds with, "That happened to me/my Aunt Fanny, too...."
  • Planning a response that achieves a goal; replies with a "one right answer"-type of question, designed to direct the conversation closer to that goal.
  • Crafting an argument or refutation of the point; replies with an explanation of the other speaker's wrongness.

What is the opposite of vulture listening skills? Let's call them dove skills. This is a way of listening that indicates a well-mined Childhood Treasure of Independence. The mental, emotional, and aspirational boundaries that benefit young children's development are the same ones that foster adult relationships. Healthy boundaries allow us, as listeners, to: 

  • Be silent. Silence your mind, as the other speaks. Turn off the shopping list, the errands to be run, the spat with the spouse, the worry about work...and also your myriad possible responses to what is being said. Just listen and be present to the other person's words and emotions.
  • Continue to be silent. Simply wait, for at least 10 seconds (which can seem very long) after the other person stops talking. Wait to see whether there is more.
  • Reflect, like a mirror, the emotions you think you see/hear. "From your facial expression and body language, you seem very happy/sad/angry about that."
  • Repeat some or all of the words you just heard. Your friend says, "I'm just at loose ends since Jeremy left for camp." and you reply, "At loose ends...?"
  • Seek deeper understanding, using questions that clarify or amplify, such as, "Help me understand what you mean by "at loose ends."
  • Ask questions to which you do not know the answer; questions for which there is not just one answer, such as, "What might it be like to live without that fear?"

The more we practice these dove listening skills with the children in our lives, the healthier their boundaries will become...as will our own.

What great news! Assist the children in your life to mine their 7 Childhood Treasures, and you will also be mining them for yourself!

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If you're in the Kansas City area, please come hear my March 8th TEDx Wyandotte talk, on the "Never Lost Forever," art of dreaming, and the power of Big Dreams in the Childhood Treasure of Faith. #tedxwyco #dreambig #7childhoodtreasures

For more information, see https://www.ted.com/tedx/events/26504. Tickets available at http://bit.ly/TEDxWYtix 

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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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