How many times have we seen adults talking to each other over the heads of their children as if those tiny people are deaf. After all the child is looking around while standing near their parents as if the words being said are of no interest. That parental assumption is a big mistake. Our little ones are sponges with fully functioning ears. They may not be indicating they hear but they do.
So what are these children overhearing? Disparaging comments about themselves or family members? That can be damaging and hurtful. Perhaps they are learning insults or swear words of which they don’t know the meaning but the tone of voice attracts them. What is said can seem innocuous to the adult…but is it?
Let me give you some examples from my own childhood. I recall standing next to my mom as she registered me for first grade. I was looking around the room and appeared to be inattentive. The woman at the table asked her if I should be placed in a slower learning environment or a more accelerated classroom. My mother answered. I was placed in the slower classroom. A week later found me clutching my pencils and crayon box as I was moved to the accelerated classroom. At that moment my mom’s words took on a deeper meaning.
Sometimes the conversation floating above the child has serious notes that won’t be realized for some time. I was very young when Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings were going on. Before WW2 many disenchanted college aged students had joined the communist party in a search for an alternative political system in a time when our country was working though big issues. It was an innocent choice that took on serious connotations when Hitler rose to power.
I remember adults talking about one couple in our community who had joined the Communist party in just that manner. The conversations I heard were about if they were to be trusted– if they were good people. I must have asked my grandmother something about all of this strange talk because she took me to a school play starring one of their sons. I watched that young man on stage and remember thinking that he looked so normal. He didn’t even have horns! At that moment I just shuffled the overhead conversations into the “grown-ups don’t make much sense” file in my head.
Roll forward about twenty-seven years. My son was a toddler and we were going to Grandma’s house for Christmas. As I was getting ready to get in the car I was listening to the TV playing in the background and a news item stopped me in my tracks. It concerned that same family I had heard about as a child. Someone had followed the McCarthy era controversy, had heard the stories and believed the demonization that was floated about them. The nut case had broken into one of the son’s home, tied the family up and bludgeoned them to death.
These examples may seem extreme but the damage–from mild to catastrophic– is real. Please think before you speak and do not disregard who may be listening…even if it is a child.