Monday, December 1, 2008

Lessons In Listening

The other night, Josie needed help in the bathroom after Toby had gone to sleep. The two of us had to be quiet so we wouldn't wake up Toby (the bathroom is inside the kids' room). When Josie was finished, she started opening the door, letting out the light and the noise while I tried to tell her several times not to open the door. She just ignored me and opened the door anyway, which really annoyed me.

I told her to step back into the bathroom and asked her, quite irritated, why she'd done that. She looked completely puzzled and explained, "But Mommy, I didn't know what you were saying to me. The toilet flush was making a noise and the sink water was on and you were talking to me at the same time so I couldn't hear what you were saying." Then it occurred to me that she had a legitimate explanation, but here I'd gone and gotten all annoyed at her because I thought she was intentionally ignoring me.

Then I wondered... what if I hadn't given her a chance to explain herself? I would have just assumed she was being a brat and ignoring me. I wonder how many times a day we do this to our kids? We just assume we know what our kids are thinking, doing, or intending, so we just don't listen to them or give them a chance to explain themselves. I wonder how much we miss as a result?

I've noticed something that all parents do. We ask our kids a question, then don't listen to the answer. Or they talk to us, go off on long-winded explanations and we say absent-mindedly, "Oh? That's great! Uh-hum. Really? Right." Meanwhile, we don't make eye-contact with them or really listen to what they're telling us.

Sometimes, when our kids repeat the same thing over and over again, we get annoyed and yell at them, "Okay! I heard you already! Will you just give me a minute?!" The thing is, if you'd answered him or at least acknowledged in some way that you'd heard him, he wouldn't have said it over and over again until it got annoying.

I know we do this with adults as well, especially between spouses or among family, because we're used to being with each other and ignoring each other.

But with kids, this type of behavior is really baffling. What are we teaching them? How to be annoying to adults? How to be ignored? How to keep saying the same thing over and over again, each time louder than before?

One very fortunate side-effect of my cancer is that I've become a better listener - not because I've gone all Zen and reflective, but because the cancer in my lungs makes breathing difficult and I can't talk as much. So for once in my life, I listen more than I talk.

Now, I find I pay much more attention to my kids. Toby has recently discovered the art of monologue. He can go on and on about who-knows-what, whether somebody is listening or not. And when I stop and listen, really listen to him, I'm often rewarded with imaginative, funny stories and priceless peeks into his mind that I wouldn't have otherwise. From eavesdropping on his ramblings to himself, I've gotten to know a side of Toby I would have missed. To think... I would've missed this about him.


Anonymous said...

Hi Shin.

These days people get really very impatient and agitated when friends or family talk and complain just to let off steam. There is no patience.

Here's my experience. Friends expect listening ears from me and I always listen patiently and acknowledge them and try to understand so that they won't think I am not listening and won't feel hurt thinking I'm not interested.

However, when it is my turn, they will find excuses to end my call (which I never did to them because I let them finished their venting).

This happens every time and I feel really upset and wonder why I didn't get treated the same way as I treated them? It really hurts but I just can't act the same way as them because I understand how they'll feel and I don't want them to go through what I have suffered.

Am I stupid? I feel really upset about that (particularly when I didn't do that to them. Am I so easily taken for granted? Should I change so that they won't take me for granted? But I don't know how to.

Hope to learn from you. I am at a loss and feel real upset.

Even when I tell them honestly about my feelings, they will say they understand, but I think they didn't or they will forget once they are ok.

Shin said...


Your predicament reminds me of the guy who complains of a headache as he bangs his head against a wall.

Some people might think you're stupid; others would say you're forgiving. It's much harder to be the latter.

You seem to have a kind heart. You should probably find people who recognize that.

Anonymous said...

You are right that our kids pick up what we demonstrate to them.

My 3.5-year -old is still in the "WHY, WHY, WHY" stage and keeps asking me why a thousand times a day. If I don't answer, he repeats the same question again and again and again and again...

Sometimes I get really exasperated because it seems like he did not hear the answer that I gave him.

When I complained to his godmother, she told me that the only reason why my son is doing that is because I am doing the same thing.

I started to be more aware of my conversations with my son and realized that I ask him WHY about a million times a day as well and sometimes because I wanted to ascertain that he understood what was being said. Or because he did not give me an answer, I would ask it a million times as well.

Perhaps, this is what they call KARMA... ha ha ha. ; )

Anonymous said...

Dear Shin,

I agree so much with what you said. As parents, we should always reflect how we communicate with our kids. Well, with the hectic life style, I know I do poorly in this area.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shin.

Reading this post made me reflect on myself also. Very often, I too turn a deaf ear on what my girls wanna say to me, so I will just shut them off without any explanation.

I guess it's time for me to slow down my pace and listen more. You are a great mommy! Hope to learn more from you.



Anne K. Leete said...

Hi Shin.
I don't know how I found your blog, but I did. I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy the straightforward way that you write, and talk in your documentary. My good friend's mom died of cancer when she was 10. There are so many times since then (we're 30 now) that she has longed for a piece of her mother, a word, a thing to show who she was and how she lived. Your prescience is striking, and I know that the objects that you leave, along with this blog-anthology, will comfort your children in the future. They will know you.


Anonymous said...


I'm not sure if you're a male or female, but I'd like to offer my thoughts on this from the viewpoint of an old-school guy. I rarely talk to people about emotional problems because I feel it's something awkward for a guy to do. If I shared my feelings with a girl, it'd probably scare her away. If i shared them with a guy, it'd feel gay to me.

Imagine if one day your Catholic priest (to whom everyone has been making confessions in the pulpit) suddenly calls you and starts crying about an emotional problem at length. How would you feel?

And how do you perceive a guy who lends his shoulder to a crying girl, versus a crying guy looking for someone else's shoulder?

Forget this whole idea about reciprocation. Jesus taught this thing 2008 years ago, but we still haven't really changed much. We human beings are really just a bunch of self-serving creatures.

Instead of looking for someone to listen to you and try to understand you, there are other channels of expression such as making music, drawing, sports, writing, etc.

And your disappointment in people's "lack of patience" is a non-issue to me. If people are attracted to you enough, and if they see value in what you have to say, they will definitely make time for you.

Anonymous said...

Most people hear what they want to hear. Shower them with heaps of praise and you will see their ears propped up just like an African elephant's.

To be genuinely concerned and be interested in what the other person is trying to say is a selfless art.

I always tell my young Padawans that "listen they must, and speak only when they are asked to".

Master Yoda

Anonymous said...

Dear Shin,

“Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" - the quote came to mind.

Hearing precedes speaking, and that should be the sequence of good communication.

A social worker friend once told me that one of her counselees did not come back for further counselling. She reflected that she had not listened enough and she had spoken more than she should have.

Anonymous said...

It is always easy to tune out the kids, especially if one is preoccupied by something one perceives is "important" can anything they want to say be of similar import, but to them, of course, it is.

Fascinating how this behaviour becomes so ingrained and makes for utterly dull adults.

At a 50th birthday function at the weekend the guests were circulated between tables. I could relay detailed information about at least half a dozen of the guests whom I had never previously met, but I know only one of them could tell you any salient facts about my life (and it's not that dull a story). They all seemed to think that a monologue about their lives/careers/house(s)/children constituted conversation. Dire.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an incident when I found a book that did not belong to my 5-year-old boy in his bag one day. He told me that his teacher must have given it to him. I wrote a note to his teacher to confirm. When the teacher replied that no, she had not given him any book, I scolded him for telling lies. He sobbed and looked so vulnerable.

The next day, I personally called the teacher to clarify and she said that it is possible that the kids sometimes put their books away in the wrong bags... & here I was ASSUMING that he was telling lies and jumping to a conclusion when my poor boy had no idea how to explain what happened 'cuz he was clueless too and had assumed that the teacher must have placed it in his bag and given him the book to bring home.

Anonymous said...

Talking is something that our parents could not wait for us to start. When we did, they constantly and loudly praised us.

Then we were berated for not listening.

What were we to do? Live and learn, I guess. Actually listening is more fun. We learn more and have more emotions from listening than from talking. Makes life more fulfilling as well.

Anonymous said...

What a coincidence to read this entry.

I just took a moment to apologise to Tasha while giving her a warm goodnight hug & kiss.

I had scolded her quite badly while bathing her earlier on regarding her recent annoying ways of seeking attention:

> Persistently cutting in on conversations.

> Making Kung Fu Panda's moves and ending up with a blue-black chin.

> The silent/impatient reply with a frowning look.

I felt really lousy after she took my scolding with red welling eyes, trying really hard not to cry.

A lingering silence followed and my memory bank started to flash to all the moments when I'd been very harsh on her lately due to my edginess over my bad luck with hospitals - my Dad admitted for pneumonia, followed by Nadya’s operation ordeal, and now my Mum has suffered a stroke during her hospital stay for a new vascular grafting dialysis line.

I have failed to understand that Natasha has not been getting the attention she deserves lately, especially as most of our friends shower their attention on Nadia.

I have failed to stop and listen to her, which leads to her persistent interrupting.

I have failed to recognize that her clumsy moves are actually inherited from Hazel.

I must confesse that the silent & impatient reply with a frown certainly was a reflection of me lately.

That moment, I was devastated and my heart sank because deep down, I knew she was holding it in because she did not wish to annoy me further.

A huge neon sign was flashing: “Hey Dad! Please flush your twenty or so parenting books into the bowl next to you on your way out!”

I've realised I do not deserve all the little things she does to make my heart flutter like...

> Reaching over suddenly & planting a kiss on my cheek even though she is half asleep.

> Telling me “Good Job Daddy!” with a big thumbs-up.

> Sniffing me all over my back claiming “Wow! Daddy, you smell really good!”

> “Daddy, you are the best of the best!”

As I whispered to her with a kiss, “Daddy is really sorry! Are you still upset with Daddy?”

“No Daddy! I love you, forever and ever!” and she planted a big kiss on me!

Anonymous said...

Hi Shin.

My wife shared with me an email story she'd received:

While dad was polishing his new car, his four-year-old son picked up a stone and scratched lines on the side of the car. In a fit of anger, the father took the child’s hand and hit it many times, not realizing that he was using a tire wrench. At the hospital, the child asked his father, "Dad, when will my fingers grow back?" Hurt and feeling guilty, father went back to the car and kicked it several times. Then, he looked at the scratches his child had made. It read, "I love you, Daddy!"

Anonymous said...

Hi Shin.

I listen to my friends' rants and complaints patiently without words of reproach and try to understand them. But what I get in return is always the opposite. I am getting a real feeling of "imbalance". Why should I be nice and get hurt just because I empathize and am soft-hearted?

It is really funny that my friends KNOW about the important of listening and alaways enjoy the advantage, yet they don't remember I/others need that from them too. (Actually I did tell them I need that, and they say they know and will... but NO, they don't mean what they promise me).

Shin, so now I am getting real angry and have sort of decided not to listen so much (just like them) in order to protect myself and not to hurt myself. I used to think it's really not right for me to do that, but I think I am real stupid if I keep on thinking this way (as some have suggested).

But this is different from parents listening to children's words in order not to misunderstand or wrong the child because that will affect their future.

It is nice to read your blog (even though it is supposed to be your blog for your children to read in future).

Take care and continue to stay strong (in terms of your will and health).

Shin said...


Yes, this is different from the kind of listening I was writing about in my blog post.

I won't take on the role of Dear Abby here and presume to dispense advice about something I have no right to be talking about.

Thanks for reading my blog. I'm glad it's of use and interest to you anyway.

Anonymous said...

Kids have this lovely way of delivering stories that make us enchanted when we really listen and they are focused. Sometimes, though, it's human nature to just want to shut off from conversation for a while and be by yourself. When you have two or three inquisitive kids asking you, "WHY, why, why" a thousand times in a short space of time, even the most tolerant of us will snap. To relate to Shin's story, though, yes, we do sometimes take for granted that we know better than kids.

I remember my Mum telling me that my sister kept bugging her saying, "John's been really naughty" and she was outside in the garden, and my Mum said, "Hmn, yes, yes" and then my sister kept on and on and she said, "No Mum, John's been REALLY naughty." Mum kept on gardening and just said, "Sort it out between you." My sister said, "But he's set fire to the curtains in your bedroom!" Ahh, time to listen!!


Anonymous said...

I am a fifteen-year-old high school student and, yes, at times, I find it real hard to connect with my parents.

I want my parents to accept the fact that like any other human beings on earth, I'm different from them. (Yeah I'm actually considered a freak by many- but somehow proud of it.) I kinda like staying in my room, doing my stuff cuz alone-time keeps me sort of happy 3 - at many times.

Living a life is difficult, and the teenage years are the hardest part, as agreed by many. We are expected to be able to do things and think like adults but the ridiculous thing is, we're often treated like kids. On many occasions, we just can't help being rebellious! Many of us take the turn to the negative side of life at this phase, probably because of constant misunderstanding, and character-building is really important cuz it affects an individual's whole life.