Gary and Marlene told me that their son, Jack, was rebellious toward them, constantly caused problems in school, and frequently hit his siblings. The parents talked nonstop, frequently interrupting or talking over each other.
"The kid is trouble all the time," Gary said, "and he doesn't appreciate anything we're trying to do for him. If you can believe it, the other day he said that nobody listens to him or cares about him."
Gary described one incident where he poked Jack in the ribs to get him to do something, and the boy responded that his father was being "just like the people at school." Gary was worried that perhaps they were physically abusing Jack at school.
I tried to speak a few times, but they ignored me and continued talking.
Eager to provide evidence of Jack's misbehavior, Marlene said that one day they actually had to chase him down the street and bring him home to complete a school assignment.
I finally interrupted: "If I were Jack, I'd run down the street too. In fact, I feel a little like running down the street right now."
"What do you mean?" Gary asked.
"In the time I've been sitting here, you haven't heard a word I've said. I'm not the least bit offended—I have no need for you to listen to me—but it's a certainty that you two listen to Jack much like you've listened here, or worse, so the kid is absolutely right when he says that nobody listens to him or cares about him."
Marlene hastened to say that they listened to Jack a lot. "Why, just the other day, when he was hitting his brother, I dragged him out on the porch and asked him to explain what was wrong with him. I was listening to him." She then described their interaction.
I couldn't help but laugh. "Darlin', you weren't listening. You were lecturing and attacking him. There's no way in the world he could have felt loved as a result of your talking to him."
At no point did these parents really seek to understand their son. They were simply determined to blame him for being incorrigible. Oddly, I happened to have a copy of the Real Love in Parenting book in my briefcase, and I handed it to Gary. After five seconds—really—of examining the Table of Contents alone, he said, "This will never work."
All I could do was smile and suggest that he read a little further when he felt like it. Jack's parents never listened to him. Not ever, and with that lack of interest they strongly communicated to their son that they did not genuinely care about him. Emotionally wounded, he acted in ways that briefly relieved his sense of pain and helplessness. Regrettably, his parents saw only how his behaviors inconvenienced them, so they responded in ways that could only worsen Jack's pain. And so the cycle continued.
Listening is perhaps the most obvious and immediate indication that we care about someone. The absence of listening has a uniformly harmful effect.
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