Like most children, my middle son began forming words around his first birthday. He was never talkative, but he only needed a few words and seemed to understand us when we talked to him. At two, he was talking more, but his words were garbled and slurred. By three things had improved only incrementally and despite the growing need for verbal communication, we struggled to understand him.
We’d be sitting at the dinner table or he’d bring me a toy and casually make a comment that he expected me to understand. But I couldn’t. I’d respond with, “What’s that honey?” He’d repeat himself and I’d listen more closely, but I still couldn’t quite make it out. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I couldn’t understand you. Can you say it again?” With a look of confusion, he would.
When I still couldn’t understand him, I’d silence everyone else in the immediate area, hunch over, look him square in the face, and ask him to repeat himself. By this point, I could see his anxiety rising. All he was trying to do is communicate one small off-handed comment. It shouldn’t be this big of a deal. But faithfully, he’d again try to form the words, his little lips, tongue, and teeth struggling to unlock the sounds that would connect us.
When he saw that I still didn’t understand, he’d begin repeating himself, each time the words taking on greater urgency and intensity. The look of confusion would turn to fear, his eyes well with tears, and his body stiffen. How could I not understand such a simple thing? What was wrong with me? Fear would turn to anger and the panic of being misunderstood.
Seeing this, I’d desperately tune my ears to his voice, my mind racing for any possible formulation of words and sounds that remotely matched the ones he was offering me. But I couldn’t find them. And so we’d be locked in this space of misunderstanding, one of us desperate to hear and the other desperate to be heard.
Eventually, he was diagnosed with an articulation disorder and entered speech therapy. Ten years later, I’m happy to report that we can understand each other, and he’s developed the ability to drop a joke into conversation at just the right moment, resulting in gales of laughter. But I’ll never forget those early years of misunderstanding and the pain they brought to both of us. Beyond the struggle to communicate, there was something particularly hard and hopeless about being misunderstood by your own family.
On this week’s episode , Erin and I continue our series Talking About Talk by focusing on the role family plays in communication. Most people don’t struggle with an articulation disorder like my son, but like my son, our speech develops in context of family. As children, we learn how and when and what to communicate through interacting with our parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Part of what made my son’s struggle so painful was because family should be a place where we can hear and be heard.
So significant is the link between family and developing healthy communication that organizations like the Family Dinner Project encourage families to share at least five meals a week together in order to facilitate the bonds of communication and togetherness. Research also suggests that a child’s ability to feel safe and heard within the first years of life shape how they navigate the broader world as an adult. If as a child our voice is not affirmed—either because of neglect, abandonment, or trauma–we’ll spend the rest of our lives either trying to be heard or we’ll simply shut down, having learned that our words don’t matter.
While this is discouraging to think about, on the flip side, it also testifies to the power of family. As a microcosm of the broader world, family has the power to teach us how to thrive in community. Family is where we first learn to engage with other human beings and understand who God has made us to be. Family is where we first connect with others and find our voice.
So imagine the difference it would make if children grew up with the security that they are seen and heard. Imagine the power of teaching them how to make sure others are seen and heard. Imagine the power of teaching healthy communication from the start.
What does this mean for the conversations we have as families? In our family, it means:
>Making space for the quieter members of the family to express themselves
>Embracing difficult topics, modeling healthy disagreement in the safety of familial love
>Giving children the freedom to express their opinions about family decisions
>Asking family members specific questions, doing the work of knowing them
>Having a zero tolerance policy on belittling or taunting speech
>Clarifying misunderstandings and pursuing reconciliation
Our family isn’t perfect and we still struggle to understand each other, articulations disorders notwithstanding. But I do hope we’re learning to communicate well. I hope the time we spend in conversation—whether around the dinner table or in the car running errands—teach each member that their voice matters, that they are seen and heard. I hope that by doing the work today, we’re ensuring decades of conversation to come.