Chicken, cucumbers, listening, complying

One summer, soon after I graduated from college, I was staying with my mom at her house.  She called one day from work and asked me to do a couple of things.  The conversation went something like this:

Mom: Could you take the chicken out of the freezer and slice up a few of the cucumbers from the bottom drawer of the fridge?

Me: Sure.

Mom: Thanks. I’ll be home around 6.

Me: OK.

As soon as I hung up I realized I had no recollection of what she’d asked me to do.

You’re likely giving me the benefit of the doubt here, concerned that I was having a stroke or something.  I wasn’t.  There was nothing wrong with my brain.  I just wasn’t listening.

I thought of this the other day when I overheard a mother and her son in a parked car.  The mom was in the front passenger seat looking at her phone, and the boy was climbing in and out of the driver’s seat while they waited for the driver to return.  Their conversation went something like this:

Mom: Stop it.


Mom: Oh, I got a message from Grammy. On Thursday we can go see her.

Child: At her house? All day?

Mom: Yeah, she gets back from her trip on Wednesday.  Stop climbing over the seat!


Mom: I said Stop it.  You are NOT LISTENING.

Unlike the distracted twenty-something I was that time my mom asked me to do the thing with the chicken and the cucumbers, this little guy was definitely listening.  That much was clear from his response to the news about seeing his grandmother. He just wasn’t complying with the direction about the seat-climbing.  Of course we know perfectly well that that’s what his mom meant. When we’re attempting to get kids to do things (whether for their own good or for our convenience), we tend to conflate listening and complying.  We say “You’re not listening” and we know that what we mean is that they’re not doing what we’re telling them to do, and that if they did, we’d know that they were listening.

But I think it would make a difference if we were more careful about distinguishing between listening and complying.  Maybe the most compelling reason is that most of us who interact with children want them to learn to be discerning about when they comply with what they’re being asked or commanded or pressured to do, and when they choose not to comply.  There are indeed situations that will arise in their lives when we hope they will listen, hear, and then not comply.

The earliest interactions kids have, with their parents and others who speak with them when they’re young, are the ones that train them in how they’ll relate to input from others.  We can’t reasonably expect them to listen/comply without much discernment when we’re talking, and then when others are talking (their peers or strangers or political zealots), listen first before making a considered choice about whether or not to comply.

And if kids are actually having trouble listening, or processing the content of a dialogue, it’s important to be able to recognize that, distinct from a resistance to compliance, so we can address that difficulty with listening or processing for what it is.

After a few rounds of what happened with me and Mom and the chicken and cucumbers, we decided that maybe she could, when making a request or delivering information that needed to be retained and acted upon, ask me (nicely) whether I was actually listening.  We realized that I was able (without meaning to be) to make it sound as though I was processing what I was hearing thoroughly enough to retain it, without actually retaining it.  I needed to consciously alert myself to pay a particular kind of attention when I was going to need to remember something.  Who knows why – maybe I was burned out from all the remembering I did as a college student, or maybe I’d developed a habit of tuning my mother out when she was giving instructions, or maybe I was just tired that year. But I was interested in keeping track of what she was saying, and so we figured out a way to make sure I did. And we laughed about it and I reminded her frequently to not be snippy when she was reminding me to listen. We treated it like a joke, but for serious purpose. Because of course it wasn’t always just about chicken and cucumbers.

It’s a gift to kids every time we invite them to inquire with us about the impact of what we (and they) say, and what it actually means. It often feels as though there isn’t time, but it makes a difference even if we find the time once in awhile, with just a few of the words we use over and over.


I’ve posted a version of this piece at least once before, so if it sounds familiar, that’s why; it always feels worth saying again this time of year…

I still forget at this time of year that I don’t have to go back to school, so deeply set is the habit. As the emails begin to appear signaling that parents’ thoughts have shifted to school, tutoring, coaching, etc., I imagine their various children in this first week of September. A few will be relieved to have the days once again filled with reliable schedule, with crowds of others, and with new assignments, but will also grow frustrated that they can’t go faster, learn more, stop reviewing. Others still give themselves over to the trick of excitement in new clothes, notebooks, backpacks, only to realize after a few weeks, days, or even hours, that it wasn’t worth it. They remember how poorly the hours in chairs suit them and begin, that early, to look forward to June. And for others the dread sets in days or weeks before the first bell rings. Continue reading


I was reading again yesterday about the tension in higher education between offering students the kind of college experience that has its eye on preparation for a profession and the kind that is intended as pure academic exploration and edification. (Here’s the piece I read.)

I can’t help but wonder if this dichotomy wouldn’t all but disappear if we were more honest with ourselves and with young people (before they reach college age) about which things we’re insisting they learn for job preparation and which we’ve decided they should know just for the sake of knowing them.

In order to offer this distinction we’d first have to figure out for ourselves which we think are which (not to mention if there are any we might conclude are actually neither).  We tend to get flustered when kids ask us questions like “Why do I have to learn this?” because often we’re not sure.  Or we think we’re sure but when we call forth the response we’ve heard a thousand times from our own parents and other authorities, our voices wobble a bit because the words don’t entirely ring true.  “Algebra is important,” we’ll say, “because, uh, it helps you with problem solving and… abstract thinking?”  Behind the wobble is the suspicion, for example, that maybe algebra didn’t seem to help with problem solving or abstract thinking, that many of us learned those things somewhere else or not at all, and many of us also came away from algebra with little more than the clear message that we weren’t good at math.

We want kids to listen to us and respect us, and of course we want them to be ready to live full productive adult lives.  But we’re often confused about why and when they do and don’t listen; we’re confused about what exactly fosters respect.  Young people listen most intently not when we’re saying what we think we’re supposed to – in as strong a voice as we can muster – but when we consider the actuality of things, even if it means we have to fumble around a bit to find our footing in what’s real and true.  When we respect kids enough to let them see us grappling this way, they can learn to manage nuance themselves.  They’re less likely to tune us out and more likely to engage with us on questions of how to spend their time, what to strive for.

With a rising adult generation available for inquiring and striving this way, I don’t think we’d ever have to choose between learning for learning’s sake and learning for employment’s sake.  The two could march along together, more likely interdependent than mutually exclusive.

The Learnables

If you’re looking for a language program, check out The Learnables.  On the website you can see lesson demos, some of which can seem quite dull but make sense in their approach.  Instead of learning the words “for” things (ie memorizing the word in each language: apple – manzana, etc.), you see a pictorial representation and hear the word or phrase in the language you’re learning.

There are of course many programs that lean toward immersion; this seems worth checking out if the interest and motivation are there for a language and you’ve either got a kid who’s not reading English yet or one who just prefers pictures and sound. You might have more luck than with more bookish materials.

See also my older post about Berlitz’ Rush Hour series.  I get lots of happy feedback about their materials.