Listening well is an important skill in our lives—personally and professionally. In this guest post by Kevin Clarke, we hear about a dad and the hard work of really hearing what his son is saying to him. Kevin is a writer for America Magazine and this piece is reprinted with their permission.


The Clarke progeny have to endure a weekday media desert before reaching the flat-screen promised land of the weekend. That means new cinematic selections often go into heavy rotation right after they’re downloaded, and inquiries about repeat viewings are frequent, with much agony, imploring and occasional, actual 4-year-old foot-stomping. In recent weekends, “How to Train Your Dragon” has been scheduled for well-attended, multiple showings.

The antics of the sensitive Viking wannabe Hiccup, who is ultimately too kindly and wise to treat dragons in the Viking way—that is, as irredeemable enemies—has quickly become part of the backdrop to my day. The backyard is the frequent scene of live action reinterpretations, and any old time of day is the right time for unprovoked outbursts of Hiccupian dialogue.

Just this Saturday, cocking a head in my direction and focusing his disconcerting baby blues on me (not something that comes easily to him), my second-born began apropos of nothing, “You know, Papa, Hiccup’s papa?” Yes, I was acquainted with the imposing Stoick, the Viking father whose body and expectations loom over the slightish Hiccup. “He said to Hiccup that Hiccup wasn’t his son.” Stop. Stare. Wait.

About a half hour later, he starts again. “You know, Papa, Hiccup’s papa?” Still do, I tell him. “He swam all the way down into the water to save Hiccup.”

Now, I am no parental greenhorn; I know that everything a 6-year-old says, however much it may appear heavy with meaning, is not always actually heavy with meaning. Sometimes they just say things; sometimes, I think, they just say things to enjoy the spectacle of you trying to figure out in what way their completely random comment is heavy with meaning.

I also know that el Segundo has been having a hard time of late, and so have I, with him. The reservoir of patience within me has gone bone-dry, and I have been struggling for ways to replenish it. I have not been successful.

I have been snappish when I should have been kind; angry and shouty when I should have been restrained and comforting. They are not easy for him, many of the things that are easy for other kids. But it can be exasperating as a parent to walk him through the same routines each day with little indication of progress. It shames me to admit that lately, around my demanding offspring, I would not be mistaken for Robert Young.

And I know how profound and enduring the small wounds of childhood can be. Discussing bullying around the editorial table at America, I listen to a Jesuit describing an incident from his childhood that, if my chronological guess is correct, took place sometime before World War II. I know I cannot protect my children from all such things, but surely I can prevent myself from inflicting one or two of them, can’t I?

I hope so. In our church the kind and merciful God I am hoping to raise my children to rely on and find comfort in is, let’s face it, depicted almost exclusively in terms most fatherly. When the kids scrape around for a suitable image for this loving father, I guess I must be the first one that comes to mind, God help us. That is assuredly a lot to live up to.

So when el Segundo asks me did I know that Hiccup’s papa says he wasn’t his son and did I know that Hiccup’s papa swam all the way down into the ocean to save him, I take no chances. “I would never say that you are not my son,” I tell him, and “I would give my life for you and more, that is how much I love you,” I say to him and rattle through a small prayer to help restore that reservoir that has—temporarily I hope—drained from me:

“Merciful father, forgive me when I have failed so often to do it; help me to be a model of your patience and love for my children. Amen.”


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