How does frozen yogurt, a present from a friend and something sticky add up to better understanding? Let’s talk!

In our last blog post, Jonathan spoke eloquently about how it’s not patience, but empathy and understanding, that are most important when working with young children.

When we start to consider the importance of understanding, versus having the patience to just tolerate each other, we have to ask the question: How do we understand each other? How do we get inside each other’s heads? One way is that we talk to each other.

In today’s world, our daily communications happen by speaking and listening to each other in person, by phone, or through the relatively new modes of texting, email, Facebook and Skype.

Let’s start with the basics: old fashioned in-person communication. Of all the ways we communicate with each other, talking in-person offers us the most sensory information. Besides the words we speak to each other, in person we can watch how bodies move, scan faces for strong and subtle emotions, maybe feel little arms wrapping round in a full body hug, or even share in the experience of smelling or tasting a delicious meal together. But even this type of communication is pretty limiting when you think of it. As is often the case when more than one person’s perspectives are involved, there is so much room for misunderstanding!

Understanding each other...

In South Florida, if I ask the frozen yogurt server, “Do you have any jimmies?” she would roll her eyes and and shrug, but in the Philadelphia area of my hometown, a nod of understanding would be followed by a pile of chocolate “sprinkles” scooped on my swirl of butter pecan frozen yogurt. Yum!

Not only do the same words have different meanings depending on where they are spoken, but mishearing a letter or two could skew meaning as well. Young children and the elderly probably get caught up in this kind of misunderstanding quite often. Here’s an example from many years ago:

A three-year-old stands up fast and comes close to punching out her best friend for calling her “silly” face across the snack table. I’m the teacher in the middle trying to keep both faces intact asking, “Did you call her silly face?” The friend reaches up, looking confused, and with a bit of frightened disbelief at the surprising reaction, she gently wipes the angry face of her dearly loved friend with a wet finger. “Noooo, I said you have jelly on your face.” Time freezes as they look into each others eyes. Finally two little chests breathe a sigh. Now they understand, and smile. The anger, fear and disbelief disappear.

Relationship is an important factor in the level of understanding that we can have with each other. All the communications and understanding shared in the past come into play at any given moment.

Just this weekend I was happy to start my summer in Chicago with my grandchildren and their parents. Ben is almost five and Ella is three.

Ben and Ella

We’ve been in Florida missing them for the last four months. The scene is a common one. The kids are playing while the adults sit around the table talking and sipping tea. Suddenly I remember that I have something to show Ben and Ella.

I walk into the other room, calling back to them that I have a present that I want to show them. I walk back into the dining room saying that my friend Jaime gave it to me, and I thought they might like to play with it. They are delighted with my plastic nesting doll measuring cups. They take them apart, play that they are some interesting characters, and after a while start fighting over them a bit as could be expected.

I reach for them worrying that my present will not last through breakfast saying, “I’m worried that my present will break if it lands hard on the floor, so I better put it away so that it will be safe and can be played with next time.”

Ben says he is taking it home with him.

I say that it will stay here, and he can play with it again soon.

Ben gets absolutely furious, grabs the doll and throws it hard across the room, glaring at me. I don’t understand this at all. It seems, to me, a huge overreaction to trying to keep my present safe. He starts to cry and gives me the ultimatum that if he can’t take it home with him, then he will never come to my house again, and I will only see him if I go to his house.

I’m really confused now, feeling a lot like all those five-year-olds who aren’t ever getting invited to each other’s birthday parties, but shifting back to my grown-up self I chalk it up to the fact that Ben is almost five and REALLY wants to play with those dolls at his house. Now, remembering his angry glare, I’m feeling kind of sad as he goes off to the bathroom with his mom.

When they come out I whisper to his mom, “Did you find out what that was all about?” She says, “He thought the dolls were a present for him and couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t let him take them home…”

Gulp. Now I feel heartbroken. Misunderstandings all over the place! This is life: full of miscommunications and misunderstandings, even with the ones we love most.

I sit down on the floor and tell Ben that I am so sorry that we had a big misunderstanding. We talk. We explain. We understand, laugh and hug. We get over it and move on with the fun of the day. Later I revel in his child’s fierce sense of justice.

There are big lessons to be learned by trying to understand things from a child’s perspective. But we all need a voice. We all need to be heard. And just like children, each of us is challenged to share the pain, joy and curious work of trying to understand and very much needing and wanting to be understood.

Let’s start a dialogue about truly understanding. What do you think is most important about communicating with the goal of understanding your children, your loved ones, your co-workers and friends? Post your thoughts in the comment section below.


© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011