Friday, March 17, 2017

Listening And Understanding


Every parent has had an experience like this. Our daughter wasn't even two. We were in the car, headed to meet grandma and grandpa at a Seattle University basketball game. Traffic was horrible and I became particularly incensed at one driver in particular. I rarely swear so I'm confident that what I said aloud was "clean," but I nevertheless let him have it. There was a moment of silence, then from the backseat, I heard my little angel say, "Get out of the way driver! Go over there and drive in the trees!"

One of the most common complaints about children is that "they don't listen," but they are always listening (they just don't always obey, which is a healthy thing). Humans are designed for language and from the moment they are born, indeed, even before they are born, they are listening. They may simply begin with tone and timbre, but they very rapidly move on deciphering not just the words we use, but their meaning, often comprehending long before they are ready to use the words themselves.

One of the most remarkable experiences of my teaching life came a couple years ago when I was visiting my friend John's Dorothy Snot preschool in Athens, Greece. One of his teachers asked me to tell a story to a group of 4-5 year olds in English, none of whom spoke the language. I chose to tell George Shannon's Lizard's Song, one that I often tell to the kids at Woodland Park. At the end of the story, the kids wanted to hear it again, so I retold it. Then the teacher interviewed them. As a collective, they had missed some of the details, but they had more or less understood not only the plot, but many of the nuances, as well as the moral of the story.

I'm sure that I "sold" some of the story through my facial expressions and hand gestures and I'm certain that they knew more English than they let on given that it is sort of the unofficial second language of the country, but their ability to tease out meaning from my foreign language floored me. There is no way I could have done that had the tables been turned.

They are always listening and they understand far more than we credit them with.

Lately, I've been trying out the expression "tough luck" with the kids. Not in a mean or dismissive way, but more as a statement of philosophy.

"I pinched my finger!"

"Whoa, that's some tough luck."

Yesterday, I was sitting around the play dough table with a couple of kids and one of them told a story of woe. I replied, "That's some tough luck."

She replied, "What does that mean?"

And before I could answer, a newly-minted four-year-old replied, "It's like saying 'Bummer, dude!'"

They are always listening and they understand far more than we credit them with.


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