Why it is Important to Listen to Children’s Repeated Grievances as if Each Was the First

Have you ever experienced your child repeating the same complaint over and over and don’t exactly know what to do to either stop it, or understand it better?

“He’s mean!”
“My tummy hurts!”
“I don’t like going to school!”

Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss (2003) coined the phrase “ethics of an encounter” when discussing how teachers and parents can help wield an independent child by actively listening to their words and using objective lenses to understand their needs. What this means is that when young children deliver a message to their caregiver, it has meaning, but that meaning is not always the same. “My tummy hurts” can be literal, or it can mean that this thing that is happening to me makes me nervous. When we honor children as an “entrepreneurial self, a flexible actor ready to respond to new eventualities” we hear their words and actions as modes of becoming who they are, moment by moment. We cannot simply say “Oh THIS again? She always says that but it’s nothing.”

Ethics of an encounter sounds pretty sophisticated, especially when I am suggesting that when a child claims they have a tummy ache, it is a moment to reflect on their surroundings and determine what is triggering that statement.

Is this a new environment?
Is anything out of place?
Do you tend to offer a soda or yummy Pepto Bismol?
Have they been sleeping well at night?
Is mommy traveling?

Rx for Growth: If your child has a frequent complaint, take a moment, look eye to eye and ask follow-up questions so you better understand what more could possibly be going on. Reflect on your reactions to less than desirable behaviors or circumstances. Understand that children lack the ability to compartmentalize what they’re feeling and so anxiety or stress can sometimes only be communicated in the simplest of ways, like a tummy ache.

If your child cries when they start a new program at school, don’t just assume that new things take time to adjust and gas light them with “okay okay”… they do take time, but by actively listening every time as if it were the first, you send the message that their feelings are valid, their words have meaning, and that their communications are effective for solving their problems and they can be better equipped to be resilient to “new eventualities”.

Dr. Masek
VP of Education