When Eli was four years old he was sitting on the floor in Sunday school with about fifteen other four-year-olds. There was a little boy sitting next to him – cute little guy, on the chubby side, dressed like a cowboy. Eli had spoken several times and the little boy now had his head tilted and eyes narrowed, studying Eli like a bug. Unbeknownst to Eli, I was standing just a few feet behind them and my heart stopped. I knew something was going to come out of this boy’s mouth and there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it. Finally the little boy asked in a soft voice, “why do you talk that way?” Eli looked at him and whispered “because sometimes I stutter.” The little boy grinned and patted Eli’s back with his chubby little hand and whispered “oh, that’s okay!” Eli grinned back — all was good.
Several months later we were at Eli’s older brothers’ baseball game. Eli asked me to walk with him into a nearby church to use the restroom. As we were walking he started to cry. I took his hand and asked what was wrong. He said “a boy just asked me why I talk this way.” Again my heart stopped but I calmly asked him how he felt about that. He stopped walking, ripped his hand out of mine, and said angrily, “MOM, I know the difference between (nice tone), ‘why do you talk that way?’ and (mean tone) ‘why do you talk that way?’”
I don’t remember if Eli was aware that I had overheard the previous conversation between him and the little cowboy, but I was profoundly moved by his insight. To this day he seems to do a good job of considering intention when a listener reacts to his speech. He has taught me to do the same. When we take the time to consider intentions, we find that most often the intentions are good.
Our family, relative to most others, is extremely knowledgeable about and sensitive to the subject of stuttering. I have a friend whose family is extremely knowledgeable about autism, because they have a child who is autistic. The first time I was with that child I made him very angry when I acted appalled at his fixation on snakes. Most boys would have loved my reaction – but not this one. After comforting her son, my friend helped me to understand and gave me guidance as to how to react in a way that was more supportive for him. All was good.
It is not unusual for a listener to react to Eli’s speech with a startled look, a slight frown, or an intense stare. Sometimes a listener finishes his sentence for him and we both feel angry. I have no doubt that my friend’s heart wrenched when her son’s feelings were so hurt by my comment about his love of snakes. I was completely ignorant – as I am about many things – and I was grateful for her compassionate response. I did not mean her son harm.
I often remember that chubby little hand warmly patting Eli’s back and about four-year old Eli’s reminder to consider intention. This keeps both of us from letting those seeds of anger take root and grow like a wildly invasive species, permeating every aspects of our lives.
Keep them talking, keep it fun!
Doreen (Dori) Lenz Holte