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Hearing the Children

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Neil Postman

This past week we had some unexpected drama in our newly constructed house when our seven year-old granddaughter confessed that for a few days she had been “feeling it rain” on her head when she was using the bathroom. She was nervous telling us this and when we inquired as to what in the world she was referring to, we discovered some pretty significant and steady drips coming from the bathroom ceiling - which of course is never a good sign!

It did make me laugh though to think of Lily, our granddaughter, imagining that experiencing what she thought was “raining on her head” in the bathroom was something she might be better off not telling us. When I asked why in the world she didn’t tell us right away she said: “I was afraid I might get in trouble.”

We told Lily that telling us was actually a great thing because if she had never told us, the issue causing the water above the ceiling might have become a much bigger problem. The leak turned out to be a result of the extreme heat we’ve had causing a buildup of condensation where some additional insulation around some duct work would prevent the issue and thankfully it’s under warranty and under repair as I’m writing – so happy to report a crisis averted :)

But Lily’s reticence reminded me of a phrase I used to hear quite frequently from my father when I was growing up, which was that "children should be seen and not heard." This phrase originated in a time when hierarchical family structures prevailed, and children's perspectives and emotions were often dismissed or disregarded and that was exactly my experience growing up in a very patriarchal family and household.

We’ve never uttered that phrase in our family so the water leak incident and Lily’s fear of saying something that might get her in trouble was a great reminder to talk as a family about how society and culture has progressed, the importance of helping children learn the value of healthy emotional expression, and the importance and value of children's voices being heard and respected.

The saying "children should be seen and not heard" can be traced back to Victorian-era England, where strict social norms and hierarchies were prevalent. During this period, children were often considered as miniature adults who should follow the rules and expectations set by their elders. Childhood was seen as a phase to be quickly passed, and little attention was given to the emotional and psychological needs of children. Consequently, children were expected to be quiet, obedient, and passive, while adults held the power to make decisions on their behalf.

This outdated notion of silencing children has significant negative consequences on their development and well-being. Suppressing children's voices can hinder their emotional and cognitive growth. When children are discouraged from expressing themselves, they may become anxious or struggle to articulate their feelings and needs effectively. This emotional suppression can lead to long-term psychological issues, affecting their self-esteem and confidence.

Moreover, dismissing children's opinions sends the message that their thoughts are unimportant or unworthy of consideration. This lack of validation can lead to feelings of insignificance and worthlessness, ultimately impacting their sense of identity and self-worth. When children are consistently silenced, they may lose trust in adults and the notion that their perspectives matter.

In addition to the emotional impact, the practice of silencing children perpetuates a power imbalance between adults and children. It reinforces the notion that adults always know what is best for children and that children should passively follow without question. This dynamic can prevent children from developing critical thinking skills, autonomy, and decision-making capabilities.

Today we know that acknowledging and encouraging children to express their feelings and opinions fosters emotional intelligence and well-being. When children feel heard and validated, they are more likely to develop healthy coping mechanisms and a positive self-image. Embracing children's voices empowers them to process their emotions and build resilience, ultimately supporting their overall mental health.

Something I do quite intentionally and as often as possible with my two granddaughters is to stop and face them when they speak to me. I also crouch down so I am at eye level to them which lets them know they are as important to me as any adult would be I might be speaking to and when they speak to me they have my full attention.

By empowering children to share their opinions and ideas, we nurture a generation of confident individuals who can advocate for themselves and others. Children who are accustomed to expressing their views are more likely to become engaged citizens and participate actively in social and political matters as they grow older.

Our water leak incident became a powerful life lesson for Lily – it wasn’t about creating trouble as she feared but rather she was thanked and praised for something important and helped prevent a possible catastrophe. That's something applicable in all areas of life, be it leaking ceilings or personal matters. And as a grandfather, it’s my responsibility to create a safe space for these types of conversations, a haven where my granddaughter knows she can speak openly without fear of retribution or disregard.

We have to remember that children, like adults, have a rich internal life filled with thoughts, emotions, and perceptions that are unique to their personal experiences. To deny them the opportunity to voice these thoughts is to deny their fundamental humanity. Moreover, it stymies the development of important communication skills that are critical to both personal and professional success later in life.

In encouraging children to share their experiences, we open the door for them to engage more deeply with the world around them. This can foster an increased sense of empathy, an ability to problem solve, and the courage to stand up for what they believe in. It's not always easy – there will inevitably be times when a child’s views conflict with our own. But it's precisely in these moments that the real growth occurs and the real meaning and value of self-worth is affirmed.

In the same vein, we need to ensure that children understand that their fears and worries are valid, and that they should never feel obligated to suppress or disregard them. By acknowledging their fears, we show them that it's okay to be scared or uncertain – these are natural emotions that everyone experiences. And importantly, by working through these feelings together, we teach them that there's strength in vulnerability and value in seeking help.

In the end, this water leak incident wasn't just about a home repairs; it was about nurturing open communication and encouraging self-expression within our family. It was a simple, everyday event that presented a profound opportunity for growth and learning – for Lily and for us.

In going forward, I urge you to not just hear, but to actively listen to the children in your lives. Encourage them to express their thoughts, fears, and joys. In doing so, you're not only fostering the growth of strong, confident individuals, but also building a world where everyone's voice – regardless of their age – is valued and heard.

Maybe even more importantly, take the time to listen to the child within yourself and reflect on whether or not that child was affirmed or stifled along life’s journey. Taking the time to reflect on your own childhood, to remember the times when you felt heard or silenced, can offer a wealth of insight and empathy. If you discover that your voice was stifled as a child, understand that it is never too late to reclaim it. Expressing your thoughts and feelings freely can promote personal healing and growth, and also serve as an important model for the young ones around you.

Moreover, by consciously choosing to treat children's opinions and emotions with respect, we actively help to break the cycle of silencing that has persisted for generations. Our everyday interactions can help shape a future where children feel valued and encouraged to participate in the world around them, to voice their thoughts and feelings, and to grow into adults who do the same.

Indeed, the lessons learned from our own past can serve as valuable guideposts in our interactions with children. They remind us to maintain an open mind and an open heart, to respect and validate the unique experiences and perspectives of each child. After all, children may be younger, but they are also filled with insights and wisdom that can surprise and enlighten us.

By creating a safe space for children to express their thoughts, feelings, and fears, we are doing more than just promoting healthy emotional expression. We are fostering resilience, cultivating empathy, and empowering future generations to navigate the world with confidence and compassion.

The incident with Lily served as a powerful reminder of the value of open communication and the importance of children’s voices. It was a seemingly small event that illustrated the profound impact of acknowledging and addressing children’s concerns, rather than dismissing or trivializing them.

So as we continue to navigate our shared journey, let us commit to hearing the voices of our children, to acknowledging their fears and celebrating their joys. Let us empower them to share their unique perspectives and to engage deeply with the world around them. In doing so, we not only nurture the growth of resilient, confident individuals, but also contribute to a more empathetic and understanding world.

And let's not forget the importance of listening to our own inner child. The child within us holds the key to our most authentic self, and by acknowledging and embracing our own vulnerabilities and strengths, we can further enrich our personal journey and deepen our connections with others.

Every living person has a voice, and that voice is worthy of respect whether it is the voice of a child, the voice of an adult, or the voice within each one of us. We can all do more to ensure these voices are heard and valued. The symphony they create is the harmony of a world where respect, understanding, and love resonate. Let's keep the music playing, and let's keep on learning from the children in our lives and the child within us all.

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