One of the toughest things I wrestled with, especially when Eli was younger, was getting him to tell me how he felt about his stuttering. It’s still not the easiest thing in the world, but when he was younger, it was next to impossible. If I was direct with him, he would make it clear he really didn’t want to talk about it. He was too smart to take the bait when I tried indirect methods. What was I doing wrong? Why was this so hard for both of us? Was it because he was a boy and boys just don’t talk about their feelings? It took our cowboy speech therapist guy to point out to me that he WAS expressing his feelings and I was shutting him down!
Turns out I had adopted a "work it out yourselves" approach honed to a tee when my first two boys were born about one minute apart. They were an even match so they didn’t need me as a referee. By the time Eli came along, 4 ½ years later, I had gotten pretty adept at deflecting sibling complaints and whining back to the source. Once Eli was old enough to contribute his own level of irritation to the mix and then flee to Mom for back-up, I stuck with my plan (or habit) of deflection. Most often I would be sitting at my desktop computer, pounding out literary works of art (or playing solitaire) when Eli would come up behind me in tears with something like "Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaom, dey woooooooooooon’t le le le le le le le let me plah plah plah play Pooooooooookemon Ma Ma Master Traaaaaainer wif dem!"
My usual response would be "you go work it out with your brothers, dear," or if I was feeling really ambitious I’d bellow out "boys….let Eli play a little, okay?" I’ll admit, I was fortunate that they were all three gentle and kind boys, so disagreements usually resolved themselves quickly and peacefully, without violence or screaming. If not, I would have gotten up and shut the door.
You see, I grew up in a large family back in the days when the parents’ goal was to put a roof over your head, keep you fed and watered, and to watch TV in peace and quiet after long hours at work. Bickering between siblings was not tolerated in the presence of these over-worked, stressed-out adults. While not quite as disengaged and certainly not as overworked, my own parenting style was somewhat influenced by this hands-off approach. Hadn’t it been good for us to buck up?
During one trip to the ranch when I had brought all three boys, Dr. Halvorson brought out a ridiculous horse mask which was an instant hit. The bickering started and I expertly squelched the argument with my honed deflection skills – "if you’re going to argue, we’ll just put it away…" Dr. Halvorson made a mental note and brought this to my attention at our bi-weekly lunch meeting. He explained that if I wanted to hear how Eli felt about his stuttering, I needed to be willing to hear how Eli felt about other things – I needed to let him complain and whine. If he felt safe complaining about his brothers, he would eventually be more likely to feel safe complaining about his struggle with speaking. I still didn’t necessarily need to intervene, but I needed to be a better listener.
I never perceived whining and tattling as golden moments for expression and an opportunity to get a boy to talk about his feelings. And Dr. Halvorson’s advice wasn’t an instant fix. But over the years, Eli has become more comfortable with talking about his struggle, and I’ve become more intentional about taking advantage of those golden moments and becoming a better listener. Keep him complaining and keep it fun…
Doreen Lenz Holte