Children Will Listen

Careful the things you say, children will listen.

Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.

Children may not obey, but children will listen.

-Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

had a conversation with one of my students yesterday that made me both sad and proud. She is a graduating senior who has been involved in the school in just about every way possible. The highest academic classes, student
leadership, sports, arts. See, she listened and took it to heart when we told her to make the most of these four years. She internalized it when we said to strive for greatness. She believed us when we said that hard work pays off and that you miss all the shots you never take.

She heard our platitudes.

My student also said she heard when her teachers, coaches, and advisors told her that her efforts were not enough. She listened when they told her maybe she just wasn’t trying hard enough, wasn’t dedicated enough, or made a mistake. She took it in when after approaching them for advice on how to handle a situation, she was told to “work it out.”

She listened to our dismissals.

My heart ached as she described four years dedicated to her school, assured by her teachers that it would pay off and that it would mean something, only to be left feeling burnt out and empty at only 18 years old. She also recognized that ‘greatness’ was probably the wrong thing to be chasing and that maybe ‘happiness’ was a better goal.

I hope that I was not among the teachers that she said had left her feeling this way, but if it wasn’t her, I have probably done this to some other student at some point. It’s never my intention to hurt my students’ feelings, dismiss their concerns, or to make them feel like they are not worth my time. However, I am human. I am busy, and tired, and overwhelmed, and sometimes I say things that I don’t really mean. Sometimes I say things in jest that maybe hit a sore spot. Sometimes I say things in anger because, let’s face it, students can be annoying sometimes. I write this not to shame the teachers that made an amazing student feel that the enormous amount of effort invested over the last four years was a waste, but because I do this too. I have done it as a teacher. I have done it as a parent.

Over the last several years, I have definitely noticed an uptick in the stress level of students. The upper level students feel they have to be the best, the greatest, the most important, or they will not matter at all. Some truly believe that if they do not take six AP classes a year, serve as president on at least three different clubs and play a sport that they have no chance of getting into college. The lower level students gave up trying to matter a long time ago. As teachers, we get frustrated with the students that don’t try, but when the messages they are hearing are this kind of all-or-nothing hyperbole, can you really blame them?

Children will listen.

Children are listening.

They are children.

Since I have been teaching high school age students for nearly 15 years, it is easy to forget that the phases and stages that I see kids go through every year over and over again are all new to these kids. This is their first time experiencing all of it. The things that I take for granted because I have been witness to it so many times is fresh and raw and real to them. They lack adult perspective because they are not adults yet. So while we may know that in a few weeks they will be over that break-up that is so distracting to them today, or we may understand that the cares that consume them about a class or activity aren’t going to matter in the long run, or that in just a few years, they probably won’t even remember the name of the other kid they are involved in some petty drama with, they are experiencing all of this in real time, and we are not helping by piling on the pressure.

Now, I am not saying that we should reduce our standards, lower our expectations or let them off the hook for their failures. What I am suggesting is that we consider how much we mean what we say and what that message really is. I once heard someone speak about the fact that teachers have the power of life and death on their tongues. We are responsible for guiding them toward the best choices for them.

So . . . how do we do that? We have to model what we want them to become.

Children will see and learn.

Apologize when you’re wrong. When you make a mistake as a teacher or a parent, apologize and ask for forgiveness. You are human too and you are going to make mistakes and kids pay close attention to how you handle it. Few things will damage kids’ respect for you more than deflecting responsibility for your own actions.

Encourage (and accept) a growth mindset. Frequently students ask me if they failed a project or tell me they are disappointed in their own performance. I have to continually remind them that everything is a learning process and that if they did everything perfectly the first time, we wouldn’t need schools. Expect mistakes in academics and behavior. If you think there is a better way, show them!

Don’t hold grudges. You have to give students the room to grow and that means starting every day fresh. A friend of mine once asked why I let a particular student back in my program when she had been so terrible a year and a half before. When I said I thought it was worth giving her a second chance my friend said, “Oh I forgot, you like the broken ones.” I suppose that she is right, but I just don’t think of them that way. I think the ones she calls “broken” just aren’t finished yet.

Choose kindness. In our world of social media, it is easy to fall into the trap of sarcasm and snark. A witty comeback will get more likes than a simple genuine response. This mindset is creeping its way into our everyday interactions more and more and there is precious little kindness. Students see the way that you treat them and other adults. Again, this doesn’t mean being a pushover or lowering your expectations. By all means, hold kids accountable (PLEASE!), but you can do so while showing them that you respect them as a person.

Remember what it is like to be a kid. Having empathy is critical. Remember how it felt in their shoes, empathize with the struggle, then offer them hope.

Children will listen. The question is: What are we saying?

2 Replies to “Children Will Listen”

  1. Great article! As a high school teacher, I have also seen the stress in kids, especially in a small rural school where the top kids really do have to do everything if it’s going to happen at all. This is a good reminder that my words do matter. I do try to reassure my kids that they will have a future even if they aren’t a part of everything. We are near a community college and a public university. There are also two tech schools nearby. I try to tell them there are many paths and they will find their own way. Thanks for this!

    1. Thank you Stacey! I’m with you – there are so many paths that life can take and there certainly isn’t one “right” way. I think we need the reminder as much as the kids do.

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