A Listening Lesson: Appropriate for All Ages

11/12/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

My friend Annie, an overwhelmed but very capable mother, has two kids under 5 years of age and a high-powered corporate job that's now got her traveling around the country. She just experienced two deaths in the extended family and told me she needs to sell one home and find another after the first of the year. I'd been invited to share in their Halloween revelry. I hadn't been out trick or treating for probably 40 years. Two nights in one week I went over, first to carve pumpkins the Saturday before the Thursday. And then the Thursday itself with family all around and a fun trip around the neighborhood, including the fire fighters at the station around the block.

That Saturday afternoon we had three stores to get to and a stew to get in the crock pot. Annie told her son he was a "great" boy and would buy him a balloon because he'd behaved "excellently" in the market. I'd noticed that little Jimmy wasn't listening to his mother, and she wasn't really paying all that much attention, as she was so focused trying to track down all items necessary in the local Stater Brothers for her pumpkin carving party that night.

I said to Jimmy, "You are a good boy. But you haven't been listening to your mother very well." I was afraid I was overstepping my boundary as a friend. Annie looked at me and then turned to her son, "Lisa's right. You aren't really listening that well." He got the skeleton balloon but it was broken before the night was over.

Later that afternoon, Jimmy was jumping up and down on the couch, screaming out, "I'm POWER Jimmy." His costume for that evening was a very elaborate Nasa astronaut suit with a jet pack, special gloves and boots. He'd put the power strips, which had neon lights flashing, on his legs right under his knees. He was hopped up on candy corn his mother let him eat because she was tired of saying no so often while she was trying to get everything done in too short a time window.

I said, "You're not power Jimmy. You're baby Jimmy. Power Jimmy listens to his parents." Both his folks were in the kitchen with the baby. I asked through the partition if what I was saying was okay to be said. Her husband -- his daddy, responded with this message: "We teach through repetition."

I kept this conversation up for the entire time of my visit. I kept reminding Jimmy that he is more powerful if he is listening to his parents. He only stopped screaming out "I'm POWER Jimmy," after he fell in between the couch and large footstool right next to it. He jack-knifed in between these two large microfiber pieces of furniture. He was fine, but frightened. That's when he got quiet and started listening to me. I even went so far as telling him sugar and candy is fun, but it is not good for him. That it will cause a rush and then a crash but that's another story.

We all want to be babies, crying to get what we want in life. As adults this rarely gets us what we want. Oh sure, we can scream and cry as we did when younger but that only works for so long with some people. Babies know the world through touch. Babies learn that crying, screaming, and making noise often gets us the attention we desire. But as adults this behavior can close us off from a world we desire.

A month ago in a local restaurant I saw a family with three kids under 5 years of age. In the entire hour not one child used anything but an inside voice. I'd never seen a family like that out in public. We just assume children are wild and let them be so, often unaware how uncomfortable they are making others in the same vicinity. What is well-behaved? What is authentic? What is repressed behavior?

I'd told Annie I didn't want to carve a pumpkin. She bought enough pumpkins nonetheless. When it came time to carve, her hubby said he'd cut off the top and carve out the insides for me. I discovered they had special tools that made it easy to cut out the owl I'd drawn on the orange sphere with a stencil taped on it. My only memory of carving a pumpkin was that it was a messy ordeal. Once the dirty work was done, I had so much pleasure involving creativity and choice. I could have chosen a ghost, a monster, a spider or a goblin. I loved the wise owl I carved sitting pretty on her perch, with clouds wafting by. Everyone said my pumpkin was the most beautiful. Like a kid, I was delighted. I was certain I didn't want to carve. I'm so glad Annie didn't listen to me.

Where is our power? Is it in false costumes or in respecting our loved ones when they attempt to guide us, teach us, show us how to interact with the world for our greatest health and well being? I felt stuck in my own way that I didn't want to carve but just wanted to join in the festivities. But Annie didn't listen to me and with her husband's help and special tools, I lived my most meaningful Halloween memory to date.

Brenᅢᄅ Brown is doing a workshop for Oprah online about her latest book, The Gifts of Imperfection. A week later in the he(art) work assignment, many turned in pictures of owls, referencing the lesson about how important it is we listen with compassion and non-judgment, instead of beating ourselves or others up. It took me awhile to connect the dots.

As I was preparing to leave that evening, little 3-year-old Jimmy asked his mommy if he could also walk me out to my car. He surprised me when he said, "Good night power Lisa," and gave me a kiss. Mommy was happy. Daddy was happy. Jimmy was happy and I drove with one hand over my heart the entire ride home.