When I was young my Dad would sing this little song – usually to the background of six kids banging utensils, crashing toys, yelling and chasing each other round the house while one of us wheeled through the kitchen on roller skates. (That isn’t an exact scenario but you get the idea.)
It went like this:
“I talk to the treeeees…. but they don’t listen to me.” (It’s from the old musical, “Paint your Wagon.”)
I thought it was just one of his nonsense songs; he had a bunch of them. But as I grew older, I realized he was singing about us. That sing-songy phrase was his way of coping with a crowd of rowdy kids who weren’t listening; a silly song that subtly (and humorously) expressed his displeasure at not being heard.
Fast forward thirty years and I’m the one trying to talk over three squealing girls as they dash through the living room hooked together by a string of leggings, simultaneously my boys turn the toy bin over with a spectacular crash followed by vrooming, honking, and hooting sounds. (That is an exact scenario). And guess what? I totally get what he was singing about.
“Sami!” I call. “It’s your turn to set the table! Will you come set the table?”
She gallops through the kitchen, laughing.
“Eliza! I’ve asked you three times to hang up your coat. Will you please hang up your coat?”
She trundles down the stairs.
“Speeeeeen-cer, Gorrrrrrrr-don! It’s time for dinner! Will you please come get in your chairs?”
No time for dinner. No awareness of Mom. No recognition that my voice was just left dangling in the air, useless.
After asking politely, begging a bit, then raising my voice a few decibels, the blood beneath my eyebrows starts to boil, the steam inside my ears starts rising, and pretty soon I feel like a kettle ready to blow.
Then I think of my Dad’s song. And out it comes. Right off my lips like it’s always been there.
“I talk to the treeeeeees… but they don’t listen to me.”
Instead of yelling, I start to laugh. Because it is kind of funny. That’s what they are sometimes. Trees. All five of them. And they’re not listening to me at…all!
So what to do?
Sometimes yelling slows the action, stops a certain behavior. But it comes at a price. A child’s feelings get hurt, I feel guilty because I didn’t keep my cool, and there’s always the emotional clean-up afterwards.
For years Freudian philosophy said it was cathartic to vent your anger – go ahead, let it out, blow off that steam. Recently, however, that idea is being replaced by scores of studies that show venting doesn’t actually soothe anger; it fuels it . I have learned all of us are better off I don’t go to my angry place.
When we’re finally gathered around the table, I tell them the story about my Dad.
They get a kick out of it.
I tell them I don’t want to talk to trees. I want to talk to kids who can hear me. And you know what? They listened.
I’ve taken to singing my Dad’s song fairly often. When I do, my kids understand they should be listening. And… it’s kind of magical. They come to the table, hang up their coats, get napkins from the pantry. Not always. (No system is perfect.) But if nothing else, it redirects my own emotion, helps me walk more peaceably, and reminds me that my kids won’t always be this crazy, our home this chaotic.
My Dad knew something I occasionally forget. That the insanity known as horse and buggy with leggings, dinos that hoot, cars that crash, and giggles that cannot be contained will end. All too soon there will be no disordered din to shout over. No herd of toddlers to corral. Gone will be the innocent creativity of small children, the playfulness they prioritize, the tiny bodies held on my hip, the leg hugs, and the sticky hands that slip so easily into mine.
Why screech and rant? This season is brief, the apron strings already beginning to slip. Maybe there’s something worth laughing at with my children? A child that would feel loved if I stopped for a minute and put my arm around her to gently request her help. Surely a little more patience, combined with a sense of humor, would give me more mileage than that stormy, put-out look.
So I make eye-contact with the child that needs to listen, I kneel down to talk to them – nose to nose. I speak calmly but directly, and then I smile. It feels good to hold it together, be the eye in the storm.
Isn’t the best teaching always done by example?
“Teach your children everything you know, and when you must, use words.”
I also love this from Plato.
“With anything young and tender the most important part of the task is the beginning of it; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression more readily taken.”
Trees grow in every house. So in case you’re musically inclined, I jotted down the tune for you.
But any tune will do.
QUESTION: How do you feel after you lose your patience and vent? How do your children feel?
CHALLENGE: Sing Catherine’s father’s tree song if you must, but the next time you are about to lose your patience, collect yourself and stay calm.
 Cain, Susan (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking pg. 233. CROWN Random House, Inc.