Hear, here.

Posted: March 24, 2014

EVER HAVE A CHAT with an impressively mature kid and wistfully think, "If only I'd known at her age what she knows"? I get that way every time a child shares a sage insight that took me years to learn the hard way.

Like last week, when I chilled with teacher Joanna Bottaro's fifth-graders at the Gen. George A. McCall School, on 7th Street near Spruce. The students are researching the phenomena of emotional neglect (which they endearingly refer to as "neglection"). They've managed to boil down the topic to an essential truth that I wish I'd learned decades sooner:

We'd all be better off if we listened more closely and more often to each other, with more empathy and less judgment.

Without going into detail, let's just say that, had I learned this at 10, my 20s might've been much less dramatic.

The McCall kids had invited me to their school because they knew that journalists do a lot of listening, and they wondered what I'd learned from it.

I gave them my standard (and honest) patter about how listening doesn't just connect us to those who need to be heard; it reminds both the listener and the listened-to that we are always connected. Even when tough emotions like fear or worry make us feel cut off from the world, which can make us feel even more alienated. Empathic listening can break the cycle and make us feel like we belong again.

Liam Wesolowski, decades wiser than his 11 years, took the notion a step further.

"Listening is a scientific way of your body being able to let the emotions out. Because if you don't, your brain will start to cause damage to your body because it is holding in all the emotional stuff," said Liam, as my jaw dropped. "When someone listens to you, you feel relieved."

Did I mention that Liam is 11?

The children's interest in "neglection" arose after months of discussing the many causes they wanted to study while working with Need in Deed, a nonprofit that uses the classroom to prepare kids for civic responsibility and service to others.

"They were so passionate. They wrote persuasive papers, debated them in class and even created campaign posters for the causes they cared about," says teacher Bottaro, who has partnered with Need in Deed for seven years. "Over time, the theme that seemed to connect the causes was, 'How can we care for each other better?' " - beyond, say, stopping bullying or child abuse.

They pulled the question apart, with help from guests.

A pediatrician spoke about how babies who aren't fed, loved and held enough will "fail to thrive."

"They don't grow and gain weight, and they might die," explained Benny Liu, 10.

A brain expert taught the kids how "mindfulness" - meditation and deep breathing - helps people "listen to themselves, so they relax," said DaoXi Lin, 10.

And less stress, said Sherly Wang, 10, might eliminate addictions "that people use to be calmer."

Isabella Ortiz, 11, wasn't sure that addiction would ever go away since "people will always have problems." Still, if more people felt heard and known, they might not feel the need to "drown their sorrows" in alcohol.

"When someone listens to you and you feel heard," she said, "you release toxic stress."

She actually said that. And it's true. I looked it up.

We spoke for an hour about the human heart, hurts and joys. Surprisingly, it wasn't jarring to hear fifth-graders speak with confidence and empathy about matters like post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, depression and the like. It was apparent that their knowledge had grown organically from their initial interests, which were explored with sensitivity by the experts they'd invited.

And, let's be honest, not every child - urban or suburban - lives a Mayberry life. Some have firsthand knowledge of the effects of "neglection" in their own families or communities. To be able to express that knowledge to a caring listener - or to have the empathy to hear someone out - is its own soothing balm.

It's incredibly moving that kids so young understand this. And I'm excited about their next step - putting their newly honed listening skills to practice beyond McCall's walls.

Bottaro says the children plan to visit with the elderly - especially those who are lonely and have no one to listen to them. The kids want to hear their stories and then write them in a way that lets their subjects know they've been heard.

Lordy. I can't wait to see how these kids grow up.



Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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