Stick It In THEIR Ear

Harry Potter opened our minds to all kinds of wonders. A couple of my favorite characters are Fred and George Weasley. These boys knew how to have a great time. They were inquisitive, imaginative , and inventive. Just like our kids. One of my favorite inventions they came up with was a low-tech, high imagination listening device called extendable ears. By sneaking an extendable ear into a room where the adults were talking, they could then listen to their conversations through a fine, tiny, magical wire. They knew that by listening to what the old folks had to say when they thought the young ones weren’t around they could get the “real scoop” of what was going on.

Our kids have their own version of the Extendable Ears. They are constantly listening to see what we really think. I recall being very interested in what my parents said about things when they thought I wasn’t listening. I even remember pretending to be asleep in the car on one occasion because they were talking about what to get the kids for Christmas. Children somehow believe, whether it’s true or not, that what we say to other people is a much more reliable source of information than what we say to them. Especially if the information is exchanged between two or more adults.
Since our kids always wear their extendable ears, our conversations with other adults, our spouse , our friends, our parents, or even the check out clerk at the grocery store, become valued sources of information for our little eaves droppers. These casual conversations deliver big clues to our kids as to what we think about them, about our job, about other people, about the quarterback on our favorite football team. In turn, it then determines, in a big way, what our kids think about themselves and the world around them.

Let me apply this to schooling at home. Suppose your spouse comes home and asks how the day went. You respond by saying something like,
“It was one of those days when brick and mortar schools look really good. Billy whined about his work all day and Jen is three weeks behind in math. She doesn’t get it and I can’t help her.”
There is nothing mean or wrong with this statement, except Jen is sitting at the table in the next room deciding whether or not to work on her math. With her Extendable Ears on, Jen may have heard the conversation more like this,
“Billy is a whiner and Jen is hopeless at math. Maybe we should send them to traditional school. She’s so hopeless, not even I can help her learn it.”

The reality is we have very little control of the meaning of our words to intended or unintended listeners. We need to be extremely careful of our children’s extendable ears. Children will always interpret our words through the filter of their current self-concept. They will also develop feelings and beliefs about such things as the importance of education based on what they hear from us. We can be incredibly encouraging and positive in working with our kids all day long, but the thing that will destroy our efforts is when we’re on the phone with a friend and we say something like,
“I don’t know why they need to learn all this grammar, we don’t use it as adults.” Because you said it to another adult your child will believe you are being completely honest and you may find yourself over the next few days wondering why Ben is struggling with grammar.
BUT there is hope.
We can learn to use Extendable Ears to our advantage. Just as kids will believe the worst in the things we say to other adults, we can create situations that will help them create healthy belief systems about themselves and important issues. We discovered early on in our schooling at home experience that there would inevitably be days that could and should be forgotten. So we needed a way to talk about this without giving the impression that we thought we might have made a mistake in bringing our daughter home.

As we discussed this we went back to some of our core beliefs and discovered that a useful concept for us was the idea that mistakes and set-backs truly are just opportunities for learning. So my wife developed the concept of
Character Building Days. We tried to help our daughter understand that if she struggled with her learning on a particular day she may not have learned very much science or spelling, but she certainly would learn something about herself and probably about the patience and persistence of her mother. We helped her understand the idea of being willing to come back to or continue to work on something hard or “boring” helped to build character so someday she could grow up to be a great adult. Consequently, I sometimes came to ask about Deslynn and Emma’s day and would be told,
“It was a Character Building Day.”
We then talked about how even though Emma didn’t want to perform certain tasks in school, she finally finished them and gained character, if nothing else that day.

Don’t be fooled. When we were absolutely certain we were alone, our conversations would be much more candid and more emotional. But we always wanted Emma to know that even hard days meant growth.

Now, if you chose to, you can practice the art of Extendable Ear Control. By becoming an expert you can create situations that strengthen, reassure, or even challenge your children. Imagine what it does for a kid to hear his mom tell her best friend, “I am so proud of the way Ricky takes care of his school work. He even tries really hard when the work is difficult.” Don’t make the mistake of saying something like, “Don’t you Ricky?” after the compliment. If they get the sense you know they are listening, the validity of the statement goes down. We can also pass on our values in this way. “I just learned about fractals the other day. They are a fascinating mathematical concept.” Knowing that you, as an adult still learn things about math sends a clear message about how you feel about learning and about math to your child.

I know that you can use the same words to pass values and to model good things if you speak directly to your child. We all should do this too. I believe that since your kids are going to use their Extendable Ears anyway, by mastering the art of controlling our information flow to their EE’s we possess a very powerful tool to build their self-concept and help them develop healthy, productive attitudes about important issues. We found that a residual effect was that we just naturally became more careful with our words.

If you aren’t careful with your words, you never know who might pick them up and do something with them that you didn’t intend.


Corrie said...

What a good reminder to be thoughtful in my words to others around little ears. Great visual.

Elsie Kei said...

I'll have to tell my mom about this- She's been thinking about homeschooling, so I'll tell her about it!

ali said...

Okay, whoa. I got totally stuck at the "filter of their current self-concept." That whole example really got me in the gut. I'm going to need to marinate in that one for a while.

It's been a long time since I've visited your blog Dave and Des, and now I know I canNOT stay away! Great stuff here ... thank you!

Meetthekellys said...

Great article! Time for me to put it in practice. Thanks!

TexasFamilyofFour said...

Wow! I just stumbled across your blog and as I'm reading this post I was thinking "Love and Logic", which I've yet to read heard amazing things about. Anyway, as a long time homeschooling mom who's made her fair share of mistakes, I really appreciate the way you put this together. Thanks for opening my eyes to new ways of thinking.

I remember as a very young girl growing up in a dysfunctional home with little or no praise, but when my parents where visiting with other adults they would brag on us ( their children). I remember the feeling of my head swelling with pride when they shared that I was 1st chair clarinet, or that I was on the honor roll, or graduating with honors. The mileage my self-etsteem got out of those conversations was rich. So, thanks for the stroll down memory lane and the great ideas.

Terri said...

I'm now in my sixteenth year as a home-based educator and have only our youngest child, a high school freshman at home. Not only does she notice what I say, she notices my tone of voice and facial expressions, too! Thanks for such a well-written and insightful post.

Shannon said...

This is such a GREAT concept! I really want to put this in practice. Maybe I'll stay in the room while I talk on the phone about how Lindsay is choosing such good friends. Or maybe I'll talk to my husband about all the positive things that my kids said/did, while we sit at the table after everyone has been dismissed. So true that they are less skeptical of what the overhear than of what we say directly to them.

Sometimes this takes vulnerability. Like being an oral diary. But why would we hold back our encouragement and make it private? Thanks again. Love this idea.


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