Children Will Listen

From a very young age, I could feel what was happening in the adult world around me.

I am not unique. Yes, I am a highly sensitive person. But I believe we all are. I have no way to gauge another’s inner experience – just guessing.

Children have not yet developed the callous that life experience cam eventually create. They are sponges, picking up everything that is going on around them.

Why then do adults tell themselves that their kids “won’t know what is happening” and decide that is is best to “shield them” from “harsh, adult” realities?

There were pivotal events in my childhood that were never explained to me: my mother’s miscarriage when I was 6. My aunt and uncle’s divorce. The fact that my grandfather had had another family before ours. These things were never spoken of. Yet, I felt the energy around them and knew that something was going on.

Left to my own devices, I had no choice but to try to make sense of what I sensed, to piece together what I could as best I could with my emotional immaturity and my limited understanding.

I assumed my mother was dying. I thought she had stomach cancer. When she was taken away to the hospital, I thought it was forever.

When my uncle literally disappeared from our lives, I thought I must have done something to make him leave. I learned that people who you love can leave without reason or notice. I learned abandonment.

And as for my grandfather’s secret other family: my grandparents knew that there was a first wife and a son. They kept it to themselves. Boy, was that a heavy weight.

I could literally feel it in their presence. Their home, a place I loved dearly, always felt slightly “off,” and there was a barely discernible tension whenever the phone rang.

Years later, when the truth came out, my entire world clicked back into its rightful position. Living in the atmosphere of secrets gives added weight to gravity. It creates a denseness to the air one breathes. There is a physical and emotional tension of “readiness” you develop in that environment: you do not know why, but just under the surface you are on high alert, 24/7.

I’ve had to unravel these experiences. It has taken time, patience, professional help and love.

I have a friend who was an active alcoholic for the first years of his kids lives. After he got sober, he refused to consider that they had been affected by his drinking. He felt he’d hidden it well, that he’d been highly functional, had kept it from them.

I don’t know why he had such a blind spot around it. A kind of denial. Maybe it was too painful for him to admit to himself.

Maybe he, my parents, and my grandparents, were all well-intended and thought they were doing the best thing for their children.

Perhaps it was too complicated-feeling for them to try to guide their children through the truth so they opted to keep quiet and hope for the best.

All I know is that children do know – can sense – everything happening around them. And that if adults do not help the children make sense of what they pick up on, they will form their own conclusions about the world that they experience.

The prolific Stephen Sondheim captures this reality beautifully in his song, “Children Will Listen.” The lyrics are below. Here is one of my favorite renditions by the incredible Mandy Patinkin.

Who are your children listening to?

Children Will Listen

How do you say to your child in the night

Nothing is all black but then nothing is all white?

How do you say it will all be alright

When you know that it mightn’t be true?

What do you do?

Careful the things you say

Children will listen

Careful the things you do

Children will see

And learn

Children may not obey

But children will listen

Children will look to you

For which way to turn

To learn what to be

Careful before you say

“Listen to me”

Children will listen

Careful the wish you make

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true

Not free

Careful the spell you cast

Not just on children

Sometimes the spell may last

Past what you can see

And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell

That is the spell

Children will listen

How can you say to a child who’s in flight

Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?

What can you say that no matter how slight won’t be misunderstood?

What do you leave to your child when you’re dead

Only what ever you put in its head

Things that your mother and father had said

Which were left to them too

Careful what you say, children will listen

Careful you do it too, children will see and learn, oh

Guide them but step away

Children will glisten

Temper with what is true

And children will turn

If just to be free

Careful before you say

“Listen to me”

Children will listen

Children will listen

Children, children will listen

Songwriter: Stephen Sondheim

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: observe

2 thoughts on “Children Will Listen

  1. My therapist once told me that denial is a coping mechanism – it certainly worked for my mother. So many secrets and lies. I think that generation lacked the tools to deal with their messes so just swept them under the rug. You are so right – children take it all in.

    Liked by 1 person

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