Do adults listen to children very often? Really listen, without expectations or assumptions about what children mean to say or are trying to say or intend to say or could possibly be saying. Attending fully to the child’s words and ways of expressing thoughts, accepting without judgment that these might be very different from our own thoughts and expressive styles.

Although all adults were once children, when we reach adulthood we no longer see the world as children. And it is difficult to recapture the perceptions and perspectives we had in childhood. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to listen to children. Their points of view can remind us of our own childhoods and help us to reconnect with the endless wondering, imagination, and sense of the possible that is part of being new to the world.

Educator Vivian Gussin Paley writes about listening to children, acknowledging that she, like many adults, tends to enter into conversations with children with the sole purpose of “announcing [her] own point of view,” and that when she checks this inclination, she has the privilege of discovering responses to the world that emerge from “the child’s point of view” and are quite distinct from her own.

Listening is all about curiosity. When we are curious about other people – about who they are and what they think – we do our best to listen. We are receptive to the possibility that what we hear will change us, that we might learn something that will lead to a new and surprising understanding. As Martin Buber says, listening encourages “the other to create his or her own meanings, which may be very different from one’s own.” 

Rather than being limited by our expectations about what someone is going to say, we focus on what the person is actually saying and are open to learning from them.

But even when we intend to listen to children, adult-centered expectations can dampen children’s voices. Sometimes, for instance, we try to help children express their thinking more clearly or fully by suggesting a different way to say something. “Did you mean to say . . .?” Although this can sometimes help a child to communicate a thought with greater clarity, we must be careful that we are not just completing the child’s thought ourselves. 

Without planning to do so, adults can put words in children’s mouths, thinking that we already understand what they are saying and that they just need our assistance to articulate their thoughts more precisely. Although generally well-meaning, this practice risks distorting or silencing what the child has to say. Children typically have absorbed the message that adults know better, and so they are somewhat likely to accede to our suggestions, even when we have it wrong.

What we need is a practice of unvarnished listening. Without subterfuge or design. A practice of taking in, with utter generosity and openness, the words and expressions, the presence, of another person. To listen to children is an ethical act that is committed to respect for the child’s unique and intrinsic value and to a willingness to relinquish, as Gareth Matthews writes, “the automatic presumption of adults’ superiority in knowledge and experience.” And not just to relinquish this presumption because it doesn’t serve us well in our attempts to listen, but to relinquish it because it is wrong.


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