Over the past several years I have shared stories on my blog and in my book around the importance of listening – real, genuine listening – for all children including children who stutter. Having taken so much time to reflect on this practice of listening, you’d think I’d be pretty good at it by now. Apparently I’m not. Just the other evening Eli, now 18 years old (and still stuttering), told me he was never going to talk to me again because EVERY TIME he comes in the room to say something, I make him do stuff like dishes, laundry, vacuum, clean the cat box, take out the trash, put the laundry away, mow the lawn, etc. EVERY SINGLE TIME he claims. Clearly he’s prone to exaggeration, but maybe my listening skills could still use some tweaking!
When we, as parents, think of being a good listener we most often think of good eye contact, thoughtful questions, and of course, shutting our mouths and opening our ears. I’ve come to believe that with children who stutter it’s best to forget about those first two suggestions and focus on shutting our mouths and opening our ears. I also have come to believe that this is good advice for speech therapists.
If a child has a speech therapist, that person is probably one of the few in their life that really has time to listen. Research-based evidence claims that having one adult who will listen without passing judgment can be the one most important factor for a kid who is struggling. Moms and dads are apparently busy worming their way out of housework, teachers are swamped with the needs of their students in overcrowded classrooms, grandparents are working well past their retirement age, and counselors are expensive! Speech therapists -- you have a golden opportunity to really make a difference through listening.
I started researching peer-reviewed journals to find quotes and numbers to prove my point, but Lorraine kept popping into my mind. Pall Mall puffing, potty-mouth Lorraine. I decided to run with it…
When I was a teenager, we had one small bathroom in our farmhouse and had to literally walk through our parents’ bedroom to use it. Combining that with an ancient septic system and limited water supply, the old outhouse back by the grove of trees was often called into service, especially when extended family came to visit. Often, probably at round 3 a.m., cousin Lorraine would sock me in the arm to wake me up so I could accompany her to the outhouse. She was 12 years older than me which made this a huge honor. This adult wanted to spend time with me!
Lorraine would light up a Pall Mall for the trip and we’d tip-toe down the steps, giggling our fool heads off. Once out the back door, we’d grab each other’s hands and bolt through the cold wet grass, Lorraine swearing a blue streak. My job would be to hold (and puff on) Lorraine’s Pall Mall and keep a look-out for men with axes. Apparently the corn fields of southern Minnesota were full of them in those days.
Lorraine and I bonded over those trips to the old outhouse. Once back in the safety of our bed, too wound up to sleep, we would talk. Well, I would talk and Lorraine would listen. I could say anything to Lorraine, she would never pass judgment. She listened to my troubles and my hopes and dreams.
No one in the world would have positioned the Pall Mall smoking, potty-mouthed Lorraine as being a good role model for a struggling teenager. But she was. She made me feel confident, valued, worthy, and heard. My voice, what I had to say, was important to her. She made a difference.
To all the hard-working compassionate current and soon-to-be speech therapists out there – be the Lorraine in your clients’ life. You have that golden opportunity – one-on-one uninterrupted time to just listen – no assessment, no judgment. Just listen (Pall Malls and potty mouth optional).
Work with parents to help them recognize when their child talks the most and recreate that environment as often as possible. Work with teachers to help them make talking more comfortable in the classroom setting. Help them all to become better listeners without making a child feel they are being interrogated.
Remember, research-based evidence claims that having one adult who will listen without passing judgment can be the one most important factor for a kid who is struggling. Don’t pass up the opportunity to be that factor in a child’s world – every single time!