Learning to Listen in Order to Learn

By Sandy Sivulich

"Easy does it," "Let your fingers do the walking,," "Leave the driving to us," "Instant coffee," "Instant soup," "Instant replay." You name it and in our society, we can get it for you, not only wholesale, but faster and with less elbow grease than in years past. But there's one thing we have to work harder at and put more energy into than our parents or grandparents did. That is the religious education of our children. And we have to start earlier in the child's life than they did.

Any child of any era or area, absorbs and reflects the environment he or she lives in. Our 20th century children soon become blase because they are exposed to so much so soon. We laughingly say that if Booth Tarkington wrote the novel, Seventeen, today, he'd have to title it Twelve. We hear expressions like, "She's a 12 year old going on 25," or "Kids sure grow up fast nowadays, not like when we wereyoung."

One reason for this early "maturity" is the sensationalism children are exposed to via the media. Earthquakes, interplanetary beings, emergency rescues, and disasters are all common themes in today's movies and T.V. The super heroes are accepted as normal. Our 22 month old daughter runs around with a towel-cape "flying" through the air like "Spideyman" and thinks nothing of it. The point that comes to mind is that when we wait until school age or even 3 or 4 to tell of the real and true marvels of the world, such as the Christmas story or the Resurrection, we may be infor comments such as, "So what," or "I know someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound." A jaded three year old! Just as the air is, our children's sensitivities can also be polluted.

If you've ever watched an 18 month old get excited over a balloon or an ice cream cone, you have seen genuine, sincere excitement. Theirs is an emotional purity. But in keeping with the affluence of our age, we have been too abundant, too generous with words and images. Everything can't be "fantastic," everything can't be "super duper," everything can't be "extraordinary." In the 50's we talked about a "generation gap" but now in the 80's we've created a "credibility gap." We overkill our emotion and our language.

In their innocence the children know each soda pop or each cereal can't be the best as the commercials say and so they begin to doubt. They begin to doubt WORDS. There develops an atmosphere of skepticism in them. Transferring this atmosphere to the realm of religious education, if the focus is merely memorizing words, i.e., feast days, Bible characters, what the Church teaches about this or that, the child isn't as apt to take the truths of our faith as seriously as did the children of the past. The words have decreased in value just as the dollar has.

Listening: A Lost Art

A lot of children and adults hear but don't really LISTEN. Today we don't have to listen the way people had to listen in the past. Then people really had to concentrate on each word as well as the subtleties of expression, for information as well as entertainment, i.e., the bards and minstrels, the African storyteller and historian of the tribe, the campfire storyteller, the radio! Instead we have glorified the "short cut, "i.e., the reader's digest, the abridged novels, mini courses.

Nowhere is the problem with listening more apparent than during Holy Week with the reading of the Praises on Good Friday and the fifteen Old Testament readings on Holy Saturday. Quite a few people express the idea that the services are nice, but, oh, so long; the "Church would draw a bigger crowd if they would only shorten those services" theme. This criticism of length is not the fault of the Church. Anydrama critic would say, "You can't find a better script. The material's fine." It's simply a fact that most people don't know how to LISTEN! They haven't been trained to listen. Their attention spans have a short fuse as a direct result of living in 20th century America.

Learning to Listen as Part of Religious Training

We must strive to develop active listeners, not passive ones; people who listen with their minds and hearts as well as their ears. And this must begin as early in a child's life as possible. We are so conscious of feeding the body; giving proper nutrition. We must be equally or more concerned with feeding the spiritual life. We don't wait until our children enter first grade to start building strong bones and teeth; so why wait for spiritual enrichment.

People talk about getting "back to basics." Basic means beginning and the beginning of life obviously starts with the infant. It is strongly suggested that religious training of which listening is an integral part, begin as early as 10 months. The pre-school years are the formative years in the total development of the child and should not be neglected.

At present, we do pay attention to our children in Church by bringing them to Communion, and, of course, in a negative sense when they cry and squirm during the Liturgy. Though we try to keep them from being disruptive, we do realize that as pre-schoolers, they have extremely short attention spans. Our task is to expand that attention span. It's rather like a muscle, it must be exercised and used in order to grow.

It is at home that we must begin to build the discipline, endurance and skill that attention requires. "We might not be able to pay all our bills, but no one is so poor that he can't pay attention," is a pretty corny saying, I'll admit. But it makes the point that this conditioning for future learning doesn't cost a penny.

One of the most valuable ways of increasing the attention span is to develop a READING TIME that is a part of your daily routine - a special time for you and your child. It takes time, not simply force, to settle a child to sit still and listen. You may find your sharing of a book only lasts two minutes at first, but thelistening time will increase as you persist. A habit is not a habit until we do it many, many times. And the time to develop this life-long habit of reading and listening is as early as 10 months.

Along with reading aloud, finger games, songs and stretch activities are important. Familiar activities such as "This is the roof and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people!" will give the child a chance to move about in between stories or parts of a book. While learning the words to these little verses, the pre-schooler welcomes the physical involvement.

Sharing Language with Your Pre-Schooler

Sharing language with your pre-schooler develops a listener who is aware of the beauty and power of words. Sing to, speak to, and saturate your pre-schooler with meaningful words. After all, prayer is talking to God in words. The Holy Scripture is the "Word" of God. Jesus knew the power of imagery and interesting words when he used parables in His teachings. By reading aloud to our children, we begin a love affair with words. The melody and cadence of the English language, the concertof their sounds heard in the poetry and prose of children's literature begins to develop an appreciation for our language.

Our children need us to introduce them to their new environment. They just moved into the neighborhood of this world. If we give them a bad first impression of harsh language or language that only gives directions and not pleasure, or a bad first impression of a Liturgy which is only associated with spanks and shushes, then, like missing the "sensitive" periods of physical development, they'll not develop in quite the same manner, no matter what we do in later years.

Over and over in our Christian life we hear the themes of "completeness" and "fullness" mentioned, i.e., the prophesies were fulfilled, the foreshadowing of sacrifice in the Old Testament was completed by the New Testament. If we haven't stimulated the senses enough during the formative pre-school years, then the avenues that lead a child toward a totally rich and full spiritual life are not as wide and open.

There are two things we can give our children. One is roots, the other wings. With the rich tradition of our Orthodoxy, we don't have to concentrate so much on the roots part. But in order to make our children soar and achieve the heights that God intended for humanity, we have to put forth a new energy into this area that we have not paid enough attention to in the past - the pre-school readiness for religious training.

By reading aloud and saturating your child with language, you will expand his attention span and sharpen his listening skills. If he has been joyfully introduced to words by you at home, he will then NATURALLY TRANSFER this pleasure with words to the words of the Liturgy. Listening to the Liturgy will be as familiar as listening to a story. The Liturgy will be as comfortable and familiar as the child's home and yet as new as the world he is constantly discovering. He will RECOGNIZE the words, he will RECOGNIZE the rhythmic patterns of the litanies, he will RECOGNIZE the momentum and the emotional intensity of the Liturgy, he will RECOGNIZE the beauty of it all. The way will be paved, the "basement built" so that he will be READY for the cognitive knowledge that leads to a more complete love of God and His Church.

There is a Russian legend called "Babushka." The old woman, Babushka, is too busy with her housework to go with the Three Kings when they come to her door, asking her to go with them to find the Christ Child. She then spends the rest of her life desperately searching for the Child. We must not be too busy with the vacuuming, the laundry, the daily work to neglect this home training in listening skills which will result in a more meaningful Orthodox worship for our children.

Tips For Learning To Listen

1. Set aside a special time each day for reading aloud. Read with expression, animation and enjoyment.

2. Equally important to the reading, is experiencing the physical togetherness complete with hugs and closeness.

3. As early as 8 months, do finger games, sing songs, and recite jingles and Mother Goose rhymes. A good source for materials is Ring A Ring A Roses from the Flint Public Library, Flint, Michigan.

4. You don't have to finish a book just because you started it. If your child seems restless, put the book down and go on to a song or finger game. On the other hand, it's fine to read the same book 20 times in a row. It might drive you up the wall, but the child enjoys the security of the familiar.

5. He loves knowing what will appear as you turn each page. Try not to editorialize, add, or ask questions when you read aloud. Try to stay as close to the author's intended work as possible. This does not mean that you can't, with poetic integrity, shorten part of an accumulative tale, , "This is The House Where Jack Lived," "The Gingerbread Boy."

6. Play records often: children's records, church music, classical music. The music can be a wonderful background during the child's day. It is even more mean-ingful if you and your child march around to the beat of the music, clap your hands or otherwise interact with the music.

7. Use the public library to get a good selection of books. It takes just as long to read a mediocre, trite book as it does to read a top quality book. Make sure you are developing an aesthetic taste as well as a listening skill. The bibliography provided here will be a beginning for you and your child.

Sandy Sivulich of Crestwood, N.Y. is a children's librarian and author of children's books as well as the mother of a five year old daughter.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries