Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
—Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”
Early on in my work with young children, I learned something simple that radically altered how I structure the time I spend with children. It first stunned me in its simplicity and then changed me. So now, as a parent and teacher, my goal for my interactions with children is to reach each child’s heart because I have learned that if something can touch a child’s heart, then that child will open his mind.
We humans long to be known. If we are known, then we feel the irresistible power of being accepted. We feel belonging, and to a child, belonging is everything. The simple thing I learned 19 years ago as I began my work with the young child was this: cultivate an environment where a child feels he belongs. Then pay attention.
This is far more important than the structure of the day or the long list of things adults think young children should learn in preschool. And over the years, I have learned how much I needed belonging in my own life, which in turn has helped me learn how to create room for each child who has entered my life to be welcomed and loved.
When I began working with children, I thought I used art and creative ideas to show children that it was okay to take risks and make mistakes. I thought that the projects I chose would teach children that they are unique and valued. I worked hard at making sure that my words showed encouragement instead of empty praise, and I made sure that I listened when they had something to say. I learned that the listening is more important than the projects. Beyond the careful consideration I give my interactions with children, at the foundation is the awareness that just as I long to be listened to, children long for it too.
Occasionally, to get a conversation started, I will ask a group of children something like, “Who is four?” The children instantly light up because their age is important to them and they associate each age with new achievements and abilities. Some of the children raise their hands and exclaim, “I’m four! I’m four!” Sometimes three-year-olds will raise their hands as well and say, “I’m four too!” because they don’t want to be left out. That little exchange leads to chatter about birthdays and parties and presents and toys and siblings and pets, and suddenly, just by my asking one little question, I begin to know who each child is and what is important to him. Through the stories, I know the child, and then the child knows he belongs because he has learned that we all share the same experiences.
It seems simple, but creating an environment where children feel like they belong is actually hard work. There are no formulas for knowing a child. What welcomes one child may intimidate another. What invites one child to try something new can make another child feel tentative. Invariably, a child or two won’t participate in my “Who is four?” question, just observing quietly instead, and I try to keep my eye on that quiet child because when she has gathered the courage to speak and share a thought, I want to focus on her and make sure she knows I noticed and I hear. Sometimes it takes all the courage she has in her just to whisper, “I’m four.” The simple gesture of listening — something anyone can do for someone else — can make a heart soar. Why do we ache to make someone understand us? To feel known is mysterious and intangible, but oh so important. To be known begins with someone paying attention.
A few years ago I ran into a woman from my neighborhood; I didn’t know her very well, but she greeted me with my name. “Hello, Krista.” Adding my name did more for my heart than the short conversation we had in the moment following. She had remembered me. In the simplest, smallest moment, I knew that I was known.
It’s the same way with children. Pay attention to the little details that make a child who he is and you will be astonished to learn the depth and nuances of that child’s heart. Children know when you truly see them, and they know when you truly care. They remember how you made them feel.
A few years ago I met a four-year-old boy outside of school. He was one of those tough little guys — the kind who can’t keep their hands to themselves, take toys from other kids, and rarely do what a teacher asks. If you spend time with children, you have probably already pictured in your mind a child whose behavior has been a challenge for you. Now think about how you could engage that child’s heart. I always made it a point to greet this child when I saw him. I would say hello and his name, and I would stand quietly by him. Weeks went by, and one day when I saw him, he was sitting at a table with his teacher and coloring a picture. I greeted him and stood quietly by him as he finished. Then, he attempted to write some little letters at the top of the page and whispered something to his teacher. She looked at me and handed me the picture, saying, “He wanted me to tell you these words say, ‘for Krista.’” I was so touched that day — not just because a child had colored me a picture, but because in my attempts to help him know I noticed and remembered him, all the while, he had been remembering me.
One woman who taught me much about children is now a children’s librarian in a nearby town. She knows the power of creating an environment where children feel they belong, and she applies that daily in her work. Marsha physically drops down to their level, looking them in the eyes and listening. She stands quietly close by if she thinks they might need her; she offers a hug or a pat on the shoulder if they run to greet her. She notices what fascinates the children while they’re in the library, and she looks for ways to bring those themes to her story hours or the books she orders. She pays attention. So it’s no surprise that children flock to her when they see her: they know they are important to her just by the way she pauses her day to listen to them. They know they are recognized and remembered. When the children are with my friend Marsha, they belong.
When Marsha reads the children a story, she knows she may be interrupted as the children want to tell her something about the story or the illustrations or a thought that the story triggered. Instead of shushing the children and telling them to remain quiet, Marsha welcomes their thoughts and stories and ideas. She pauses and listens and responds in a soft voice: “Interesting,” and “Hmmm.” And then she goes on with the book. She knows that when children have something to say, they’re thinking.
Last week Marsha told me a story about something that happened during her children’s story hour at her library. A little girl had told her mother a story and asked her to write it down; and her mother wrote it exactly the way the little girl had said it, grammar mistakes and all. The little girl was so proud of her story that she wanted to share it, so she brought it to show her favorite librarian who then asked if she would read her story to the preschoolers at story time. The little girl stood up in front of the group, and Marsha put her arm around the child, and they read the story together aloud to the group. The children who had been wiggling on the floor sat quietly and paid attention as if they knew something special was happening And when the little girl finished her story, Marsha went on with the usual activities of songs and books and art.
That’s not the end of the story, though. Something happened in the minds of the children that day. It was as if, during the little girl’s story, all of the children started to think, “I can do that.” Some of the children went home that day and told their parents stories to write down. The next day, one of those children brought her story to show Marsha, and just like the day before, Marsha put her arm around the little girl as they read her story together for the other quiet and listening children. Quiet and listening and remembering.
Day after day, more children went home from story hour and told their parents stories to write down so that they could show the stories to Miss Marsha at the next story hour. Day after day, story hour would begin with a child sharing a story her parents had written. Marsha had never seen anything like it — a domino effect that began to shape the way she organized her story hours. This was a huge moment for the children — they knew they were being listened to. They felt belonging.
Then one day a little boy brought his simple story: “One day this happened, and the next day this happened.” He made crayon drawings for each page. Suddenly, a page read, “And then something wonderful happened . . . ”On the page was a little stick figure under which the boy had written, “Marsha.”
You may think my friend has had special schooling and training to achieve these astounding results, but that’s not it. Marsha simply knows what is at the core of each of the children who walk through her door — they long to be known. Marsha does nothing more than say to children with her words and actions, “I remember you.” And the children know they belong.
Photographer Brandon Stanton started a blog I love called Humans of New York in the summer of 2010. Brandon set out to photograph 10,000 people in New York City, but his photographs took on a life of their own as people began telling him their stories, which Brandon then began to include with the photos on his blog. Over four million people follow Humans of New York today, and I believe it is not just because of the intriguing photographs of ordinary and extraordinary people, but because in the snippets of the conversations Brandon has with his subjects, we recognize that someone has told her story and someone else has listened . . . and we love that. In fact, we need that. We recognize that if someone has the courage to tell her story and be known, then perhaps, if we tell our story, we can be known too.
Humans of New York shows photographs of people who look conservative and ones who look outrageous, and as they all share their joys, regrets, sorrows, and deepest thoughts, we think, “I feel that way too.” A grown-up version of the “Hey, I’m four!” conversation I have with preschoolers happens when we recognize that we all share the longing to be known.
In an article about Humans of New York published in The Huffington Post on March 4, 2011, Brandon comments on this idea: “A lot of times I ask these people very personal questions, and they'll answer. They'll tell me everything because a lot of times I'm the only one who's ever asked. I can just tell when I talk to them — eight million people in this city, and nobody's ever asked about their life.”
This sounds to me just like what Frederick Buechner wrote in his book Telling Secrets:
What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.
When we tell our struggle and pain and joy and even what makes us laugh, we know more deeply who we are. And we know more deeply who each other is. We all need listeners, intellectual stretchers, confidants, energetic people, angels, spiritual guides, and helpers in our lives. Because we need belonging. It is difficult to create an environment of belonging for a child if you don’t feel like you belong anywhere. So find someone who listens, and tell your story. Let yourself be known. Once you have a powerful sense of belonging, you can’t help but begin to create that wherever you are.
Krista Barré lives in Franklin, Tennessee, where she and her husband Nick are raising their three sons ages 16, 13, and 8. As a preschool teacher, Krista loves bringing creative experiences to young children. Her favorite projects always involve massive amounts of paint, glitter, and glue. Krista loves an adventure, a clever joke, and a good story.