Earlier this week, I unwittingly managed to make my normally even-keeled, happy-go-lucky teen daughter dissolve into a weepy, angry ball of misery. It was a really nice addition to the already crowded, shadowy side of my parenting hall of fame. I’d like to say it was because I needed to teach her a tough lesson, and that I was gritting my teeth and standing up to a significant parenting challenge despite the emotional shrapnel ricocheting around us. But that’s only what I thought I was doing. Toward the end of the conversation, I realized I just hadn’t been listening.
Sometimes, life teaches us so much more about our writing than the writing can. When we write, it can be so tempting to think only of what we have to say, to focus on what others make of our words, to mistake the output as more critical than the input. But how can we learn to say anything worthwhile if we’re only listening to ourselves?
This failure to listen to my daughter was particularly notable not just because she is so notoriously hard to rattle, but because the question of whether to listen or speak up was the actual subject of our argument. That’s right. I failed to listen during an argument that was, essentially, about listening.
Like many young women, my daughter has developed a very appealing outward persona. She has a tendency to lead with empathy and warmth, to be helpful before anyone even realizes help is needed, to soothe the lost sheep around her as she organizes them into tidy lines. But although she receives a thousand compliments for this behavior — or because she does — I’m terrified that she will fall into the same trap so many women have before her, believing that her worth lies in how agreeable her behavior is.
And my concern is amplified by the fact that the only complaint I ever hear from her teachers is that she doesn’t speak up enough in class, which makes me afraid that she is hiding her true opinions for fear of making waves. What’s more, I find her classroom silence particularly baffling because when she’s home, she loves nothing more than a good verbal sparring match with one of her brothers, frequently makes her ideas and directions known, and is even occasionally snappish, moody, and temperamental. I just love it. Because from where I stand, the spicier parts of her personality are those that will be most beneficial to her once she goes out into the world, the ones that will keep others from using her kindness to walk all over her.
Or so I thought.
It took me a reaallllly long time to hear this, but what she was trying to tell me was that she doesn’t speak up in class because it doesn’t benefit her. She learns by listening and observing, and trying to go against her nature to speak up just because someone else wants her to creates exactly the kind of external pressure to be someone she isn’t that I so want her to avoid.
And when I say it took me a really long time to hear this, I mean a good 45 minutes of back and forth that made her feel, by turns, misunderstood, miserable, and furious.
It’s hard to resist the appeal of strong defenses for both our children and ourselves. My entire life, I’ve also been told that I am too nice, or too gentle, or too soft spoken. I’ve worked very hard at being comfortable taking charge and speaking up, and I do both quite effectively. But the only time I ever need to draw on this learned behavior is when I’m on the verge of losing ground in a crowded room or a crowded profession. And when it comes to adequately expressing my power, intellect, or perspective, being disingenuously outspoken only works against me. In fact, when I’m at my very best, I’m doing what my daughter does, which is listening very carefully to the world. Not because I am afraid to speak up, but because I learn so much more when my head isn’t dominated by the sound of my own voice. This, incidentally, is also the place where my best and most genuine writing emerges.
And at this moment of heightened sensitivity around the insidious effects of loud, privileged, narrow-minded voices who have a tendency to only get louder and more self-righteous when the chips are down, it might not be a bad time to revisit the power of listening. Listening to ourselves, to our children, to those voices we’ve never really heard before and those we don’t want to hear. Listening not because it protects us, but because it opens us up. Listening because, as writers, what we take in is impossible to separate from what emerges on the page, and because having the courage to soften, learn, and challenge our favorite viewpoints is the only way we can ever hope to grow.
Art: Erin Clark, Quiet Forest