Don’t “uhh huh” and move on

My 4-year-old asks a lot of questions. Lots of why’s and how’s and when’s.

And sometimes he takes a few minutes to express his thoughts. He’s working through what he’s trying to say — and he’s thinking of the best way to explain himself.

And though the questions and the explanations and the long pauses can seem a bit wearing, requiring a lot of mommy-patience on a busy day — I always do my best to listen. To really listen. Every time.

I try my best to answer every question. I work hard to never finish his sentences for him unless he asks for help. I let him work through his thoughts and then I give him a thoughtful response. And sure, if we get too far into the “Why game” — but why? But why? But why? I find a way to gently direct our attention elsewhere, but otherwise: I do my best to acknowledge that what he is saying matters. And I want him to feel that it matters.

I read an article in the New York Times today about ending the “R-word.” (Retarded.) As a mother of a child with Down syndrome, I am sensitive to this word — but not overly so, as I know that many of my friends, coworkers, etc, who have used it around me certainly mean no harm. But still, I do feel it’s important to be aware of it’s implications and potential hurtfulness — and the article articulates this idea very well. In the article, John Franklin Stephens, a man with Down syndrome who serves as a “global messenger” for the Special Olympics, was quoted.

One thing he said especially stuck with me:

“The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness. We are aware when all the rest of you stop and just look at us. We are aware when you look at us and just say, ‘unh huh,’ and then move on, talking to each other. You mean no harm, but you have no idea how alone we feel even when we are with you.”

I thought to myself: I never want Kate to feel that way. I never want any of my children to feel that way. I never want them to feel the “uhh huh” and move on.

And the thing is: we do it too often to each other, “disability” or not. We do it to our children. To our spouses. To our friends. We half-listen to their feelings while thinking more about what we want to say next. We smile politely at the quirky cashier at Target who tells us about her day, humoring her with a quick head nod and going on our way.

But we never stop to think how lonely that may feel. We assume they don’t notice that we don’t notice them.

I’ve found that whenever I think somebody doesn’t really have anything to say, it’s because I haven’t listened to them. I never want to move on or move past the people I love. Whether it’s my eloquent husband, my precocious 4-year-old or my sweet Kate, I want them to know that I can’t wait to hear what they have to say next.

“This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.” ? Sarah Dessen


  1. I just came to your blog after reading your post on 3 Things this morning.
    I am a little astonished at everything we have in common. I also have a daughter with Ds, and you know what? I even wrote a post recently on first world problems (but it was from a pretty different angle than yours, I think –

    Anyway, I’m glad to meet you.

    I don’t know if you have also heard of Down syndrome Blogs or the T21 Writer’s Alliance – those are both sites that I coordinate ( and ). You are welcome to join both, of course, and the active facebook blogger/writers group –

    I’m looking forward to getting to know you better!

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