My kids have selective hearing. You won’t find this fact surprising because your kids or any others you’ve encountered likely have selective hearing, too. Basic, repeated requests such as ‘Please shut the refrigerator door” or “Don’t leave your wet towel on the floor” go ignored unless I make them at least three times, am no more than 4 feet away from the child being asked and if each time my voice gets a little bit louder. However, if I open a bag of chips or candy wrapper from two floors down and across the house, at least some of them will come running to see how they can get their hands of some of what I’ve got. Singing “Happy Birthday” to get their attention is also an effective device because they think there will be cake. I’ve used this one too many times and they are now on to me, but feel free to try it for yourselves.
This is in stark contrast to a recent experience I had when I addressed an audience of more than 600 people at a fundraising event. My sister and I were invited to deliver the keynote address at a breast cancer support fund-raiser and with spotlights blazing into our eyes as we spoke, our sense of hearing was heightened. And what we heard was only people breathing; a sigh; the sound of a tongue softly clucking in disbelief at some of the more harrowing parts of our story. These were the sounds of rapt attention. There was no need to repeat anything because every single person was listening.
Of course these were adults, none of whom was a child of mine so that did help somewhat. But I’m pretty sure that it was just as much our compelling story of loss, endurance, drastic health measures and prevention that attracted all of those open eyes and ears and closed mouths to us. Here is the shortest possible version and you can decide for yourselves.
Our mother died of breast cancer at 42, leaving behind a husband and 5 children. I was 20 and the oldest of my siblings and I became hyper vigilant about my own breast health, going for scans and checkups regularly. Ten years later, after our father died of cancer too, I tested positive for the BRCA gene (carriers have an 87% chance of developing breast cancer) and decided to have a preventative double mastectomy. My decision was based on both wanting to stay alive for my 4 small kids as well as wanting to set a strong example for my younger siblings. The mastectomy turned out to be lifesaving as two early but very aggressive cancers were found in my breast tissue once removed. This served as a wakeup call to my younger sisters who were only in their 20’s at the time and they went for gene testing (unsurprisingly they were positive) and subsequent preventative mastectomies too.
Kind of stops you in your tracks, doesn’t it?
While up on that stage on a Sunday afternoon in a packed New Jersey hotel ballroom, a fleeting but significant thought crossed my mind: Why don’t my kids ever listen to me this way?
I give directives: Wash your hands before you eat that! Get off your phone! Put on sunscreen! To little avail. And good luck to me when I try talking to all 4 of them together. It becomes a game of verbal whack-a-mole, when I get one to shut up the next one jumps in with a joke or comment (to be fair, they may get this from me).
But something amazing happened when my sister and I stood before an audience 5000 miles away from London, where my kids were, and shared our message of breast health empowerment: A friend in the audience broadcast our speech live via my Instagram so anyone who couldn’t be there with us wouldn’t miss out and all four of my kids watched it. All 16 minutes of it. They listened. They called me later that evening to tell me how proud they were of me, how powerful my message was and it occurred to me that my amazing kids DO have the capacity to listen. When I’m saying something important. They listened and that meant more than the rapt attention of a room filled with hundreds of people.
And I now know how to harness the power of social media to work for me. I can post things on Instagram like me demonstrating how easy it is to put away the milk, or of me holding a sign that says “STOP FIGHTING!”, and maybe a boomerang of me just standing there with a spinning electric toothbrush. And I’ll tag them in these posts and they will beg me to stop embarrassing them because their friends all follow me, too.
Then I’m 100% guaranteed they’ll hear me.