Sometimes we have to look beyond words to understand

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

During World War II, a plain but kindhearted English couple adopted a six-month old Polish baby girl. Shortly thereafter, they enrolled in a course to study the Polish language.

When asked why they were taking a class, they replied, “Little Sonya will soon be starting to talk, and we want to know what she is saying!”

We smile at the timeless story, but it does capture in a humorous way our duty of understanding what others are feeling and saying.

We had better know what little Sonya is saying; that is, we had better know what our children need and are experiencing, so that we may share with them our own resources to help meet their needs.

Sometimes we forget that children have feelings about things long before they have a language to convey those feelings. The terrible twos aren’t terrible because of the age, but because the language has not caught up with the feelings — at least in my experience. Tantrums convey, “I want,” or “don’t want,” just as effectively as any verbal request.

And even after acquiring word skills, children still have difficulty communicating what they really feel about themselves, parents, friends and life in general. Just ask any parent of a teenager whose hormones have recently kicked in.

Often we have to look beyond the words.

“Don’t tell me what the person said,” my father’s pastoral counseling mentor once told him in the early years of his ministry. “Tell me what he or she was feeling. Feel with the person. Get behind the words.”

For many reasons, a person may be unable to verbalize what he or she feels. But feelings are hard to hide, especially from someone who is skilled in reading all forms of communication.

Non-verbal cues can’t be ignored. A furrowed brow, glance downward, or inadvertent grimace can often contradict the words spoken at the same time. And although forensic science has brought a new level of sophistication to the profession, modern day sleuths still follow the clues, often discounting verbal accounts.

Evidence trumps words every time.

Often, negative behaviors from children (and their parents) are nothing more than concealed and unexpressed feelings surfacing, crying for someone to listen and understand what’s going on in the person.

A sulking, pouting teenager is trying to tell somebody something. A kid bullying another kid is trying to be heard. And although it’s a long way from temper tantrums to robbing the corner drugstore, that behavior, too, is riddled with unspoken feelings.

Although I admire the dedication of Sonya’s parents, what is truly impressive about their story is the logic in their approach. They equipped themselves to enter their child’s world, expanding their world to include hers.

The wise parent may not rush out to study another language, but will polish up his or her ability to listen and feel what goes on within the child.

With effort, we can learn to look beyond the words for understanding — for our children and for any relationship that matters.