Help! My Kids Actually Listen

I don’t mean to brag, but my kids totally listen to me. It would be nice if this communication happened while we were sitting together by the fire, with me sharing decades of hard-earned wisdom and them taking it in with smiles of appreciation. In reality, it’s more complicated than that. They listen, but never at the right time.

I used to suspect that there was a barrier, a semipermeable membrane that separated my children’s ears from the stuff I say. Reminders of tasks, any variety of nags, and warnings of impending injuries didn’t seem to form the right shapes to pass through. Conversely, the sound of an ice cream truck six miles away, or the first three notes of the Spongebob Squarepants theme song were perfectly shaped to slide right in and elicit an immediate reaction.

Now I wonder if it’s even simpler than that. Like soccer-simple. I wonder if the friendly advice and folksy life lessons that I deliver directly to their ears are diverted by a small but nimble goalie. Direct shots are easily caught. The only things that my kids hear come indirectly, like a ball shot high in the corner off of someone else’s head.

I take a lot of direct shots. I tell them to put their laundry away, that I’ll be 10 minutes late to pick them up from school and that swinging a golf club in the house is a bad idea. I’ll stand right in front of them and say, “I’m going to the market.” They will reply as if they’ve heard, but ten minutes later I’ll get a text in the produce aisle: “Where are you?”

I tell them to be kind. I tell them not to judge people, that it’s not our job to decide how other people should live their lives.  I tell them to see the good in people, no matter what. They stare blankly at my enlightenment.

But recently, when I was leaving the house to go celebrate an acquaintance’s birthday, one asked, “You’re going to meet her? Isn’t she the one you think is kind of passive aggressive?” Another added, “…and braggy, since she bought that summer house…” How did those words get to their ears? Those comments were made in whispered tones to someone else, but somehow made it past the goalie. Score one for pettiness.

It seems that my children hear and take in literally every word that I don’t direct at them. As they have multiplied and grown, I’ve realized that I’m never completely out of earshot, and they are never as completely engrossed in their TV show or school work as I think. The words I choose, like the way I react to a setback or respond to a compliment, are all being recorded behind those seemingly tuned out eyes. It can make you feel a little paranoid.

I first realized that I needed to clean up my act when my oldest son was two years old. One night he finished his spaghetti dinner and asked for more. I obliged, and he stared in awe at the second large plate of spaghetti sitting in front of him. He exclaimed, “Holy sh*t! That’s a lot of noodles!”

I was horrified. Who could he possibly have been around that would use that kind of language? How is it possible that this small genius not only absorbed this strange idiom but also used it perfectly in the face of all those noodles? He must have heard it more than once. I watched him dig into his noodles and thought, “Holy sh*t, he’s listening!”

I will occasionally use this phenomenon to my advantage. I will stand at a misleadingly safe distance and tell my sister on the phone all about a new study that definitively links drug use to brain damage. I can then carelessly leave the article near them, without actually handing it to them. It might get read.

And it’s not all cautionary tales. I find that saying “I’m proud of you” is often too direct, and maybe embarrassing. It gets deflected. But telling my sister on the phone how proud I am of something they did will sneak in.

They really do need to put their laundry away. It’s piling up, and I’ve delivered this message in every direct way I know how. Here’s hoping they read my column.