I Can’t Hear Small Children!

Gael Hannan
June 15, 2021

Finally, the months of not seeing the grandchildren were coming to an end. There were guidelines on physical interaction to be followed, but at least we were going to be with them. And talk with them!

Umm, that last activity actually works best if you’re a hearing person, like a Hearing Grandad, but not so well if you’re my kind of grandmother – one with hearing loss and tinnitus and sensitivity to noise, a bit of an acoustic mess.

I cope well with my communication challenges, but one nut I haven’t been able to crack is understanding little people and their small voices. Specifically, I’m talking about the ones I care most about, the grandchildren. If I can’t understand some random child, I just smile and nod at them and then move on or hope that they shift their attention elsewhere.

Grandchildren are the best reward of having children in the first place – especially adorable when they’re small and oozing with love and energy. The downside is that this energy keeps them moving in all directions at once, with an accompanying narrative that I can see and hear them making but can’t understand what most of it means.

The only way that is going to happen is if they can be persuaded to stand still, face me, and clearly repeat themselves.

The problem? Small children aren’t yet wired for the clear communication that people with hearing loss need. They squirm and don’t maintain eye contact. And if they’re asked to repeat themselves, they may not want to, thinking they may have done something wrong, or because the discussion has simply lost interest for them.

Small children go shy and silent when their mommy tells them, “Remember what we told you? You have to get the attention of Gigi (short for Grandma Gael) before you speak to her. And face her. And speak up.”  What 2-, 3- or 4-year-old wants to say anything after that?!

This weekend, we spent some blissful time with Madison, 4-almost-5 years old, and Grayson, just-turned-3. Madison is a kinetic being, so her face is hard to keep in my frame of view, making speechreading a challenge. Grayson is a sturdy little Mack truck, also in constant motion, but he has a voice like a small foghorn and his sentences are short and digestible, whereas Madison has a stream-of-consciousness style of communication.

Because we haven’t been able to see each other much during the pandemic, I needed to reacquaint myself with their speech patterns and they had to become more comfortable again with my hearing loss. Because I’m their Gigi and not their mom, good communication with me is less important to them, but when my son was their age, it was crucial that we understood each other. Luckily for both of us, Joel had a strong voice and clear speaking style, due in large part, I think, to my hearing loss. He learned early that to get what he wanted, he needed my attention and to speak with me eyeball to eyeball

So, how do we hear those high kiddie voices? Well, any which way we can – and good luck to you.

With the grandkids, my constant fall-back strategy is to turn to a parent and ask, “What did she say?” This is an accepted part of our communication playlist. Also helpful has been my cochlear implant which has given me more of the sibilant sounds of child-speech – I can hear ‘Gigi’ being called from a distance, although they still need to come to me, or I to them, if I want to understand the words that follow.

In time it will get easier; the children will feel more comfortable with you, especially after you explain what that weird looking technology is in your ear or on the side of your head. You just have to train them, like you teach kids to do anything, from sharing their toys to using the potty. They will learn to get your attention, face you when speaking, speak as clearly as possible, speak up if necessary, and repeat themselves upon request.

But don’t forget to ask for all this with a smile; that hearing loss frown of concentration can be pretty scary to a small child. 

The payoff – hugs, smiles and the delicious things they say – is huge. And as for how to hear other people’s kids, it’s hit and miss. A smile may be your best offering.


Photo:  Grayson on a rock trying to tell Gigi something. I joined him on the rock and asked him what he was saying. He pointed to some tiny crabs.

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  1. It’s so hard to understand little kids! I’m glad I’m not the only one. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi again Gael and I so understand what you are saying as I just recently saw my little Great Grandson Charlie after not seeing him for over a year. I am also a Gigi (Great Grandma) He is two so his vocabulary isn’t much at the moment but improving weekly and sometimes daily. I don’t think he cares if I can’t understand him cause he is busy trying to make himself understood and as long as you smile, act interested and make a big fuss over what he is trying to tell you, I think he is okay with it and it certainly appeases me too. Just a “good morning Gigi” was all I needed to s tart my day. They live a long ways from me so it will be a long time again before I see him again. Also have a great granddaughter just born in the city in which I live so will get to go this often with her as she grows up. I am one lucky Gigi for sure.

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