Listening Can Be Hard: On Children and Disconnects

It was breakfast on a Saturday morning, and we needed to get out the door. Sally, however, had broken her biscuit into little pieces and then pushed them off her plate. The table was a mess.

“I want another biscuit!” she announced.

“What? You already had a biscuit and you broke it into pieces!” I responded.

“But I want a new one!”

“Honey, it tastes the same even when it’s broken in pieces. I promise. Just eat it, it’s almost time to go.”

“No! I need a new biscuit!”

At this point I was getting annoyed. I wanted to hurry breakfast along and I was tired of eating Sally’s extra food. Of course, forcing her to eat food goes against my parenting principles, and I try to only tell Sally “no” when I have good reason, and I knew there was no reason I couldn’t just eat Sally’s crumbled biscuit and get her a new one. But I felt like I was being asked to pander to her every whim and it was starting to bother me. In that moment, I felt that positive parenting was failing me.

“Sally, if I give you another biscuit, what are you going to do with it? Break it into pieces too?” My frustration was starting to show.

“But, I will need help cutting it up.” She looked at me plaintively, intently.

You know how sometimes a series of images can run through your head all at once as you have a sudden realization? Well, that’s exactly what happened to me in this moment. The first image was of Sally, five minutes before, carefully using a knife to methodically cut her biscuit into jagged pieces before pushing them off of her plate. The second image was of Sean’s biscuit, sliced horizontally into two thin circles, with honey spread in between. The third image was a series of images of how Sally usually eats her biscuits, sliced like Sean’s and spread with either honey or jelly.

And suddenly, I understood. Sally wanted her biscuit sliced in two like normal, and she decided to use the table knife and try to do it herself. She failed. Frustrated with her broken biscuit, she pushed it off of her plate and asked for a new one. And she both realized and admitted that she needed help with the cutting. And here I was getting frustrated with her.

Communication is not easy, especially with children. It can be easy to have a disconnect and talk past each other. And when that happens, it can be easy to become frustrated and stop even trying to listen, to just shut it off and go into command mode. “Just eat the biscuit.” “Stop whining.” “You have thirty seconds to put on your shoes.” But when we let our frustration take over and stop listening, we close down the possibility of actually communicating and let the disconnects of life win. We stop trying to work with each other and begin a pattern of talking past each other.

Breakfast on a Saturday morning doesn’t usually convey a life lesson, but this one definitely did just that.

The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I wish my mother had been like you. Even after she told me to call her instead of fighting with my brother when he was messing with me, she mocked me from the living room instead of coming. It certainly cemented complete distrust on her for me. I hope to be a better parent if I have kids but it seems to be so easy to fail your children.

    Btw, I had a complete disconnect at first when reading the post. I was thinking biscuit as in cookie, not as in round bread, you know Britsh versus American English that can driuve as foreigners up a wall (I thought the picture was a general breakfast picture) and when I read that Sean cutted it it two ciruclar parts I was like… what weird cookies… XP

    • Slow Learner


      • Eric D Red

        Completely on a tanget from Libby Anne’s post, but what the heck.

        Biscuit/cookie isn’t such a bad confusion; on my first day of a university exchange program to England, my flat-mate asked if he could “bum a fag”, and my neighbour asked me to “knock her up in the morning”.

      • jemand


        HAHAHAHAHA omg that’s amazing.

    • Liriel

      Off topic, but what do British people call what Americans call biscuits? Do you eat them, in general? Do you have the varieties: buttermilk, butter-flavored, southern style, etc. if you buy them frozen/canned?

      • Niemand

        Scones, at least classic British scones, are sort of like biscuits. Interestingly, in the US scones have undergone a sort of evolutionary drift to become something more like a USian cookie.

      • Elly

        But our scones are generally sweet (plain or with raisins), not the savory ones that you have over here with breakfast, for example. Scones and jam for afternoon tea, yum.

      • Twist

        I prefer a good cheese scone to a sweet one, unless it’s spread with enough clotted cream to make my cardiovascular system curl into a ball and cry.

      • lucifermourning

        (american living in the UK here)
        we don’t really have American-style biscuits. british people who saw them would probably just call it another form of bread roll.

  • machintelligence

    Americans and the British, two nations separated by a common language.

    • Christine

      Leaving the Canadians really confused.

      • abra1

        I’ve long thought of the split as something akin to an adolescent temper tantrum — with the “good child” Canadian caught in between. I mean, why else would we call trousers pants? And dear Canadians, trying to be true to their roots but having to share a continent with the rebel.

      • LeftWingFox

        Abra1: Just don’t ask Canadians to share their “Roots” with the Australians. has some rather… unfortunate implications Down Under.

      • abra1

        Oh god :$… obviously I haven’t spent enough time with Aussies… but I can’t say I am surprised. Australian English seems to have a disproportionate number of euphemisms, slang words, and double entendre relating to sex and drinking.

  • Rosie

    I find a lot of your parenting posts are triggering for me. I mean, I’ve decided not to have kids of my own, because I’m 40 and I still have trouble hearing myself (much less anybody else!) as well as you can hear Sally. But somehow your posts take me back to the frustrations of toddlerhood with parents who didn’t know how to listen. And then that’s overlaid with the frustrations of adulthood with people who can’t say plainly what they need. I can see how that can become an ongoing cycle.

    Your last paragraph reminds me of the socio-political discourse I see in social media from my more conservative acquaintances. Seems like that’s all in the command mode, and it’s about whiny teenagers and selfish women and mooching welfare recipients. There’s no attempt at all to see where anybody else might be coming from.

  • smrnda

    This reminds me of something that happened when I was working in a day care. This one girl suddenly got really mad at another workers, and was pretty vocal about it. It took a few minutes, but what happened was the worker had accidentally scratched the girl with her fingernail, and the girl thought the worker did it on purpose.

    So, if we’d all been authoritarians, the girl would have learned that adults scratch you on purpose, and then beat you for being upset. I’m glad people listen to kids these days.

    On a tangent, I know when read older literature, it seems that ‘listening to your kids’ wasn’t the norm, but was far more prevalent among educated and affluent people. I’m assuming it’s still true now. How does this work within the Christian world since, I’m assuming you would find educated authoritarians.

  • Angela

    Lately I’ve been trying to implement more positive parenting as well and it is amazing how much you can learn by listening to your children. I am curious though as to what your reaction would have been had she simply shredded the biscuit for fun and then wanted a new one (because let’s face it. Sometimes kids do that too. Or at least mine do).

    • Rilian

      If it were me.
      I’d divide the biscuits up evenly and tell each person, you can do whatever you want with your own biscuits, but if you tear them all up and throw them on the floor, then you don’t get anymore after that, because there won’t be anymore.

    • Libby Anne

      The other day we were sharing a back of tart candies, and Sally was eating them faster than either Sean or I and I was getting tired of handing them back to her (we were on a road trip). So, I put her share in a baggy and handed it to her, and told her she could eat it as fast or as slow as she wanted, but that when it was gone it was gone. So yes, I’d probably do what Rilian suggests. I’d also probably take it as an opportunity to talk about how some people don’t have enough food to eat, and we need to not waste food, etc.

    • abra1

      I find giving children choices upfront — and explaining them clearly — is the most effective. That helps even when you haven’t done the best job of listening because it offers and opportunity & structure for the child to respond. Using the biscuit example: you have 2 biscuits, you can have them fixed way X, way Y, or way Z but that’s it — no 3rd biscuit.

      I think this helps them learn to ask for what they want — “I want way X” or “no, I want way A” — because a lot of times kids either don’t know what they want — too many options, not enough experience on which to have a strong preference — or at least how to ask for it. And helps with natural consequences so I am not responding to every whim (wanting a whole biscuit after responding to the impulse to crumble the 1st one). I’ll admit to bending when it is too high-stakes or one or both of us is tired but if you stick with it long enough, it becomes the default. And I am usually happy to go with way A when it is a reasonable option — happy because I like to think it is helping them practice thinking for themselves and negotiate for what they want.

      • lucrezaborgia

        Kids do really well with non-open ended questions when it comes to stuff like food, clothing, etc.

  • Rilian

    I am reminded of when my cousin Julia was trying to buckle her seatbelt, and she was getting upset because she couldn’t do it. I tried to do it for her, but she pushed my hand away. So I started trying to give her advice on how to do it, and then her dad got in the car and yelled at her for undoing her seatbelt, did it up for her, and then, when she started screaming at him, declared that she was sleepy and needed to go home and take a nap. I tried to tell him what was really going on but he just said, “No, she’s just sleepy.”.

    He didn’t even *attempt* to understand why she was doing what she was doing.

    I’ve probably mentioned this exact story on some previous post here. XD

    • abra1

      My 7-yo rolls her eyes at me (seriously, she is very talented at this and it seems way too early to have developed this skill/habit) because my solution to EVERYTHING is for them to take a nap/go to bed. But I use it as a warning: your attitude/reaction indicates to mom that you are tired. I will give you the opportunity to calm down and/or adjust your attitude but if you don’t we will save this for later and/or I take care of it and you will go rest.

      And I am lucky enough to have a 7 and 5 yo who will still nap when given the opportunity. It is quite a amazing what being well-rested does for your ability to deal with frustration.

      • Rilian

        Hum, I think it’s reasonable to get upset when you can’t do something. Upset doesn’t mean screaming.

        Also, imagine if your spouse were like, making assumptions about your feelings and talking down to you like that. I don’t know about you, but I would not put up with a relationship like that.

      • abra1

        Talking down to? I think you are missing a important distinction between what I said and your story — I am talking *to* my children and giving them a choice but also giving them limits. I respect my children but I don’t treat them like adults because, well, they aren’t.

        I wouldn’t talk like that to my *spouse* (though I might ask him if he wants to take a nap, mentioning that I am a little concerned because he seems a out of sorts).

        With my children, it is my job to make decisions about what they need, particularly now while they are still learning both what they need and how to express it. One of my children, for example, is not the kind of child who curls up and goes to sleep when he’s tired. The more tired he is, the more wound up he gets and the harder he fights sleep. If he’s up after 9:30pm, something is going to get broken.

        There are a few that inform this strategy:
        (1) We don’t sleep enough generally speaking. Because my children generally do fall asleep when they are sent for a nap because of behavior but not always when they are just sent for a weekend nap, I am pretty confident I can read when they need a little more rest in order to deal *productively* with frustration — frustration can induce growth and learning but only when you are coping with it.
        (2) My children come from a family with a number of people who are particularly vulnerable to sleep deprivation (sleep walking, seizures, depression trigger to name 3 diagnosed issues) — so it think it is wise for them to learn to recognize and respect the signs of fatigue. And my parents have said that they have figured out over the course of 42 years of very happy marriage that the best thing that they can do for their relationship is be well rested. A good nap helps us all be better, happier, and healthier people ;).
        (3) Throwing tempter tantrums, whatever the form, can be habit-forming as your body releases endorphins in response. I am all for expressing one’s feelings but I think I need to help my children learn how to control that — when you know when yell and scream and when to keep a lid on it, you get a lot further.
        (4) I am most frequently the target when they aren’t coping well with frustration and so I am acutely aware of the “taking it out on someone” aspect (I don’t want be that target but I recognize that is just part of being mom — don’t “get” how to borrow, it must be mom’s fault). I want them to practice excusing themselves when they are having trouble not taking frustration out on innocent bystanders. That is one of the most important skills I have as spouse and parent: being frustrated is not a good excuse to be hurt someone’s feelings.

      • abra1

        Oh, and I was exaggerating about EVERYTHING. That is my eye rolling daughter’s perspective. They started a new school in the fall — much more academically challenging for her, involving some catch-up, and much more structure (pK to K) for him, so they usually *are* tired at the end of the day when we are tackling homework and other skill-intensive activities. We’ve gone down this road before with her — kindergarten involved a lot of late afternoon cooling-off periods that resulted in her sleeping through dinner but it tapered off by winter break as she acclimated.

  • meyli

    i hope i can be this focused when i become a parent. i work in a preschool now – sometimes it gets frustrating, mostly because its hard to communicate. its hard for me to give each kid the real attention they deserve, probably because 1 teacher to 7 kids is not enough!

  • Red

    I don’t understand parents who refuse to listen to their kids. I get that people might misunderstand their kids (and let’s face it, sometimes parents and kids just get in a tussle b/c of bad moods), but it seems many parents assume their kids are idiots and not worth listening to. I really do not understand that.

    I remember watching my friend yell at her 4-year-old. I can’t remember the exact circumstance anymore, but basically my friend knew her 4-year-old had done something naughty, but wasn’t sure exactly how the incident had gone down, so she was trying to get the 4-year-old to tell her. But she was yelling so loud that the girl was scared, and asking questions so fast that the girl couldn’t figure out how to answer…and the fact that the little girl wasn’t answering actually made my friend MORE angry, and the little girl ended up getting in worse trouble, even though she was stuttering and trying her best to give some account of what happened.