Listening with Children to the Big Questions

It’s a vague memory I have now, but the main point has stuck with me for over two decades. I was a young teacher’s aide in a class of third graders. I can’t remember what I was teaching, or the names of the children, but I do remember his face.

Brown skin, green attentive eyes, dark wild hair and smiling the whole time.

However it’s his words that ring in my heart.

You talk too much,” he said. At first I thought it was a slight, a gesture of disrespect, but that tone wasn’t there. It was more like a suggestion, something he’d noticed. Like a tear in my pants or a missing button. It was the best teaching tip I have ever received.

Listen more than talk.

Adults talk a lot to children. We teach and tell, instruct and correct, admonish and encourage. What would we learn if we listened? The possibilities are endless. What do children learn from listening adults? They learn they are honored. They learn to articulate their own thoughts. They learn the value expression. They learn to listen to themselves. They learn they have a voice.

Next time you’re in the car with your child, turn off the radio, let easy silence settle in and then try on one of these questions.

·      What do you think life is about?

·      What do you think happens after we die?

·      When have you felt closest to God?

·      Who is God?

·      What is something you want to remember for when you grow up?

·      What do you wonder about?

·      When you are at your best what are you like?

We all know that children develop over time the ability to think abstractly. But researchers often differ on when and what rate these skills develop. Some four year olds are already thinking these thoughts. And for some twelve year olds this will be brand new. Both are right on time.

The act of asking the question and making the space to listen is the gift you give. What the children offer to you in return may not be related to the question at all. This is still gift, a peek into their inner life.

A few tips:

·      This is not an interrogation. Watch for an opening for easy conversation and then ask your question. As mentioned above a quiet car drive is a great place. Also at bedtime, right after you turn out the light. For some families the dinner table is a nightly staple and a safe place to share.  

·      Let the conversation unfold naturally. You might ask and your child might say nothing. But they will be thinking. Ask again later when the time is ripe for sharing.

·      There is a time and a place to teach and correct. This isn’t it. Take on the role of listener. Turn your full attention to what your child is sharing. Become curious about the inner life of your child.

·      You are not in charge here, they are. Learn to ask good questions and settle in for glimpse into the mind and heart of the young deep thinkers in your house.

As St. Benedict has said, “Listen with the ear of your heart.”