An inspirational story from Jeff’s book, My Life As A Bystander that has particular relevance given the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.
I once read that the ultimate sign of love and respect is to listen to another human being. I love my children and respect them. They know they’re in my act and love hearing the stories I tell about them. But years ago I made another one of my mental notes that I was going to listen, really listen, to them.
Like a lot of things in life, that is a lot easier said than done. If you hung on every word your three-year-old said, your head would literally explode by noon. In my case, that might not be too large of an explosion; but I’m sure you might have a lot more brains left in your head than I do.
A nice balance needs to be achieved. It is important to listen to our kids, but if we allow them to blather on endlessly without ever being checked, they can keep us from getting our work done and putting food on the table, and they can also begin to believe that the universe really does revolve around them, and them alone. In other words, children need to learn manners.
I once read an article about parenting that said teaching children manners is abusive, because it goes against their basic “nature.” Can you believe that? What does this writer feel the act of unleashing rude and obnoxious children on an unsuspecting world is? And merely teaching a child the words, “Excuse me,” isn’t a panacea either. On the surface, it’s polite, but sometimes kids feel the words “Excuse me” gives them a right to interrupt as often as they please. After about the nine hundredth “Excuse me,” it might be time for us parents to rethink our strategy on this.
Whenever my sons interupt me with an “Excuse me,” I always gave them the stock parental answer, “In a minute,” This only works after they actually know what minute is over. My son, Aaron, and I once had a twenty minute conversation while I was on the telephone, covering the receiver and asking him to give me a minute to finish my conversation.
“Excuse me, Dad,” he said.
“In a minute, son. I’m on phone.”
“Is it a minute yet?”
“Is it now?”
This went on and on until it finally hit me. The kid has no idea what a minute is! Aren’t epiphanies wonderful?
Ignoring a child’s prattling isn’t the answer either.
Not long ago, I was at a mall with my wife and our three-year-old. Trying to keep up with the latest parental technology, our son was on a leash that my wife had attached to her belt loop. That’s right. My wife had actually paid good money for one of those things. Actually, I kind of like the idea of a leash, and as I see it, there is nothing wrong with it if you are just walking through the mall. The kid just kind of flops around behind you like a long board behind a downed surfer. As long as we were in motion, everything was fine. The problems began when we stopped in the middle of the mall to briefly converse about which store to visit next.
As we were talking, our little one began to wrap himself around his mother’s leg. Eventually, he ran out of leash, and like a dog that’s wrapped himself around a tree, he couldn’t figure out how to turn around and go back the other way. Now, literally pinned to his mother’s thigh, the lad began to chant the chant. We all know what “the chant” is, don’t we? We’ve heard it a thousand times in malls, grocery stores, and restaurants all over the globe. “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, ma, ma, ma, ma, mom, mom, mom, mom, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy…”
I believe you get the point. In case you didn’t, feel free to throw in a few dozen more mommies for your own reference. The chant is relentless. The words never change, but like an old campfire song, the verses can go on forever. What my wife failed to recognize that day is that there is not a three-year-old alive who will say to themselves, “Gee, Mom looks a little busy. Maybe I’ll give it another minute and let her to finish what she’s doing, then we can properly focus on my request.”
Three-year-olds don’t process information like that. Sometimes, husbands don’t either, but that’s a different chapter. So the chanting just kept going, and through all this, my wife continued to try to hold a conversation with me. But did she honestly think I could hear her over “the chant”? Apparently so, because her lips were moving. Now, both of their voices just sort of blended together and this is what I heard:
“Mommy, mommy, mommy….food court….mommy, mommy….credit card limit….mommy, mommy. mommmmmmmmy.”
I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating this was for me. I was beginning to get information overload. At one point, I started vibrating, and blood began to trickle out of my ears. Thankfully, at this point some guy came to my aid and got on the public address system in the mall and announced, “Please, lady, answer your child! Please answer your child!”
There was even a mime in the mall that came over and slapped my wife with his padded white glove. Then he asked, “Is your name Mommy?” (I pause at this point to explain the severity of this mime’s actions. You see, mimes are dedicated artists. It takes a tremendous amount of angst to get them to break character.)
Even though he’s a fellow artist, I do feel that my painted little friend was way out of line when he mimed an attempt to maim my son’s mom. So as a man, a father, and a husband, and I might add, totally against my bystander lifestyle, I went after that mime.
It was the oddest thing, too. I started to run, but it was as if I was running against a strong wind. I was stalled, but not completely. Then, just as I began to gain ground and was closing in on him, he somehow locked himself in a box (how do they do that!!!?). I couldn’t see the box, of course, but I knew where the four walls were because he was showing me. From off in the distance I could hear the Mommy chant again. As the vibrations resumed, I tried to climb in the box with him, hoping it was soundproof, but he wouldn’t let me in! I thought mimes by nature were compassionate, caring human beings. But apparently I was wrong. One more myth destroyed.
Knowing what I had to do, I left the scene of the mime and returned to the scene of the chant. And this is where I come to the point of my story—the importance of listening to those you love.
As Tami continued to talk over the chant, I finally stopped her in mid-sentence.
“I believe our son would like to talk to you,” I said.
Tami, looked a little annoyed at me, as if she were saying “Okay, let me show you something, Dad.”
Being the loving mother that she is, stooped down and asked the little lad what it was that he wanted to say.
He put his chant on pause for a moment, then said, “I forgot.”
With that, Tami just smiled, looked at me, and winked triumphantly. She knew this
was going to happen long before he ever said it. Women know instinctively when a child needs to ask something important and when he is merely enjoying the melodious sound of his own voice. It’s called “selective listening.”
Now, all parents need certain tools to raise children—patience, tolerance, love and understanding are in the basic kit, but one tool that a parent must have is selective listening. For women, this is standard equipment in their tool box. I had to earn my selective listening tool, and every tool in my box for that matter, the hard way.
One day not long ago, I was working in my garage, minding my own business, “pretending” to be building something. I do this so I won’t have to go inside the house and do the chores my wife wants me to do. In other words, I was enjoying the day in true bystander form.
My three-year-old, who happened to be sitting at my feet just chatting away about everything and nothing, not a care in the world, said something that sounded like a complete sentence. All morning long, I had been occasionally nodding at him at regular intervals, or saying “That’s nice, son,” giving the appearance that I was listening when I really wasn’t. To tell you the truth, my mind had drifted off to golf courses unknown. But at one interval it drifted back just in time to hear, “And kitty was all sticky, Daddy.”
Now a sentence like that can make the hair on the back of your neck rise to attention.
Sticky kitty? Those two words could have a myriad of meanings, so I stopped, turned around to face him, then calmly asked him to repeat the last thing he said.
“What about Kitty?” I asked
I waited for his answer. Talk about a lesson in futility. Children rarely listen to themselves, so asking one to hit the rewind button in his brain is like asking a border collie to program your VCR. (They can do it, but they’re their timing is all off due to the dog years factor). So I continued to try to help my son retrace his verbal steps and repeat his statement word for word.
“It sounded like you said, ‘sticky kitty.’ What about the sticky kitty?” I pressed.
It’s the confused look on his little mug that always makes me laugh. It’s a lot like the look a politician gets when a reporter reminds him of something he himself had said a week earlier. Had my son been quicker on his feet, and bilingual, he would have thrown out a “No comprende, padre.”
I now have no other choice than to continue with my fatherly interrogation.
“What about Kitty?”
“I had to.” he said.
Don’t you just love that? Everything a child does is a “had to.” There is never any other choice. So I delved into the matter a little further, “What did you ‘have to’ do?” I asked
“I had to pour milk all over the kitty,” he said, satisfied the inquisition would finally be over. But I couldn’t close out the case just yet. I was becoming far too intrigued at this point. And besides, since Kitty was no where in sight, it was probably a good idea I get to the bottom on this. It was hot, and Kitty’s fur could be curdling at that very moment.
I put down the hammer that I was pretending to use, and continued to pursue my line of questioning. Now adults have been known to do stupid things for absolutely no reason whatsoever. But small children usually have very sound reasons for everything they do. It’s toddler logic. You just have to keep pressing and they’ll eventually explain themselves. So I kept pressing.
“Why did you ‘have to’ pour milk all over the kitty?”
“Because he was hot and thirsty,” he said, smiling proudly.
Satisfied he went back to working on his bench. I, on the other hand, was still a little perplexed, and still had a few questions.
“Why did you pour the milk on kitty and not in his bowl?”
Without hesitation, he said, “Because kitty likes to lick himself.”
Now, I have to tell you, it took a few seconds for that to make sense to me. But then, the light went on in my head. Kitty was hot and thirsty, and he likes to lick himself. Hence, it was my son’s way of delivering the milk. It makes sense in a three year old kinda way.
So now I’m stuck trying to figure out how, and whether or not I even should, punish logic like that ? The cat may have wanted to punish my son, but I had to admire my kid’s resourcefulness. I did suggest to him that in the future he might want to run any new ideas about the feeding the household pets by his mother or me beforehand. He assured me that he would. Then we both went back to pretending to be busy.
I have told you all of this in order to illustrate my point, that listening to those you love is not always easy. Sometimes you hear what you don’t want to hear. That is why some have called “listening” the ultimate act of love.
Since that day, I have tried to work a little harder at being a good listener. But I’m still learning. Daily.
One afternoon, while driving this same son to one of his soccer games, I heard another one of those lines that make the hair on the back of a dad’s neck stand up. Now, you would think that I had learned my lesson from the sticky kitty incident, but I didn’t. I was once again visiting faraway golf ranges in my mind, and not paying much attention to his chattering away in the seat next to me, when all of a sudden I happened to hear the words “Dad” and “God” in the same sentence. Now that will usually make a father sit up and give his child his undivided attention. After all, you don’t know whether he’s praying to God for you, complaining to God about you, or using the Lord’s name in vain and needs correcting. So I figured I should pay attention.
“Well, dad?” he said, awaiting my answer, to what question I didn’t have a clue.
“What was that?” I asked, hoping he’d repeat himself without my having to confess that I hadn’t heard him the first three or four times.
“Does God know what I’m going to be when I get bigger?”
Not really giving it a whole lot of thought, I said, “Yeah, son, I believe he does. He created each one of us with a purpose. So yes, he knows.”
My answer seemed to satisfy him.
“Okay,” he nodded.
He was quiet for a while, then…
“Is there paper in heaven?”
Again, not really knowing where he was going with this particular line of questioning, I said, “If there’s a need for paper, I’m sure God will provide it.”
Ryan got pensive for a moment. It took a while for the more laid back part of my brain to catch up with the frontal lobe and realize there was something a little deeper on his mind. Now it was my turn to ask the next question.
“What are you thinking about, son?”
He continued to look out the window, then almost as if he were talking to the sky, he said, “I don’t know. I guess I was just wondering if someone came into my school and shot me dead, when I got to heaven would God be able to write out on paper all the things that I was going to be when I got big?”
Wow. I need to repeat that. Wow. In all the conversations that I’ve had with my sons, this one continues to have the most profound effect on me. This was around the time of the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shootings. I’m sure my son, and every school-aged kid in America, had a lot on their minds during those dark hours.
As a rule, bystanders don’t like to think about tragic things like this in depth. We
turn the channel on our television sets, or turn off the car radio. In the particular case of the Jonesboro shootings, and later the Columbine shootings, I never allowed myself to empathize too much with the victims and their families. The whole subject was too painful to even think about, so I wouldn’t allow my mind to go there. Understand, I felt for them, but not on a deep level, not on the only level that true empathy can live—in the soul.
My wife, Tami absorbs herself in life, taking the painful right along with the good, and so she cried for days thinking what it must have been like to be a parent of one the victims. She would ask me, as she reached for another tissue, “Can you imagine what it must be like for those parents?”
“Yeah,” I would reply, closely guarding that vulnerable side of me. Then I’d open another piece of junk mail. I think I thought if I ignored the painful reality of the situation, or at least shielded myself from it, it would somehow make me stronger than her.
But Ryan’s question wouldn’t let me ignore it. Children have a way of bringing us to places that most of us don’t want to go. While we’re trying our hardest to figure out how to properly raise them, they’re propelling us into our own maturity. It’s almost as if God used Ryan that day to tell me that it was time to start looking, and really seeing, the events of life. It was time to shed some of my bystander ways, and begin my journey on the path to becoming one of life’s participants.
I pulled over to the side of the road, and just looked at Ryan. I don’t think he even realized what he had said and why it had affected me so much. I was overwhelmed immediately by a tremendous sense of loss, grief for this generation of kids that even has to think about such things.
For a brief moment, an image of Ryan meeting with a tragic end flashed in my mind. It wasn’t a vision or anything spiritual like that. It was just a parent’s fears seeming all too real. That was all it took to open the floodgates of my soul. That part of me that I had been so good at protecting me from hurt, the part I had hidden through my humor, suddenly burst open. I broke down and wept, not just for me and for him, but for all the parents who have lost children in these violent times, and for the rest of our youth who have lost their childhoods.
I am so thankful that I was listening and heard what a ten-year-old was thinking about on his way to the soccer field. I answered him as best I could, but I don’t think I was totally honest with him that day. I told him that he doesn’t have to worry about all that. I told him that I wasn’t about to let anything bad happen to him. I didn’t want him to worry. But who am I? I’m just his dad. I’m not a superhero. I can’t be with him twenty-four hours a day. I can’t even be 100 percent sure that I can protect him when he’s in my own car. No matter how safely I’m driving, another driver can pull out in front of us and put both our lives in jeopardy. We live in an imperfect world, and so much of what happens in life is out of our control. But how could I tell him that? All he needed at that moment was a hug from his dad and the reassurance that he was going to be all right.
Kids and their questions, huh? It makes me wonder if while we parents are doing all this selective listening, how much of what our kids are saying is going unheard?
I continue to learn the importance of listening to those we love. But we’re busy, the television is blaring, there are a dozen other things that we need to be doing. It’s easy to tune them out. Especially for bystanders. We see their lips moving and we tell ourselves that whatever they have to say, we’ve heard a thousand times. We hope that kind of thinking will get us off the hook. It doesn’t. My wife has heard about my athletic youth over and over and over again, but she still listens anyway. She’ll sit and listen to my latest golf tale as if it really matters to her. To me, that’s love. The kind of love that requires involvement.
If we only listen when it’s convenient, who knows what we might be missing? And let’s be honest, it’s never convenient. There will always be things to do, places to go, and favorite television programs to watch.
Maybe all of us should take our cue from our heavenly father who tunes in to us
24-7. We don’t get a half-hearted “Uh-huh” when we tell him about our day. He hangs on every word we utter. Maybe that’s why the Bible tells us to pray without ceasing. God really does enjoy hearing from us. Even when we have doubts. Even when we’re discouraged. Even when we’re angry. And even when we ask those seemingly unanswerable questions.
I wonder how many times we’ve made the hair on the back of His neck stand up.
“He who has ears, let him hear.” -Matthew 11:15