It is a common statement from my 13-year-old son, and one I find frustrating: “You’re not listening to me!”
Because, I want to screech at him, I am listening! I hear him perfectly fine, he’s just wrong. I’m right. I’m the mom, and I’m older and have more life experience so dammit, I am right.
Until I realize my teen is actually making a fair point. And that maybe I should do a little less talking and a lot more listening. Because, though I may have more life experience and may have great ideas for how to resolve conflicts, this kid has been under my care for 13 years now, and he’s been listening to and absorbing all the life lessons I’ve been teaching him. And, even cooler, he’s been absorbing his own life lessons as he moves through the world — life lessons that have nothing to do with me or anything I’ve taught him.
This was never more apparent than when, several months ago, my son got into a disagreement with a friend of his. Without going into detail, because I need to protect both my son’s and his friend’s privacy, let’s just say the fight was bad enough that it put the friendship on shaky footing. They were talking about deleting each other from their group chats. If you know anything about teens, you know this is a big deal. Today’s version of being ousted from the lunch table.
As my son told me what was going on, I interjected with advice where I felt I could help. But he only became more and more frustrated with me and kept telling me I didn’t understand. I experienced a weird sense of deja vu from my own childhood, telling my mom she didn’t understand. Now I really get what she meant when she told me over and over again, “I’ve been there. I get it.”
So, using every bit of willpower I had, I bit my tongue and stopped offering advice. I mainly did it because I didn’t think my son would listen anyway. I figured he was stuck in that teen mentality of “parents just don’t understand.”
Turns out, I should have stopped giving advice for a different reason, though.
Because as I listened, I started to realize my son was actually handling his problem pretty well. Yes, he’d said some hurtful things he wished he could take back, but he’d talked with his friend group, empathized with the friend he’d had the conflict with, and together they’d made a plan for how not to get into the same argument in the future.
The plan was not actually what I would have suggested. The disagreement and plan for resolving it involved other kids who I don’t know as well as my own, and my son had taken those personalities into account when solving his own problem. He has a good heart and wants to do the right thing, and so do his friends. He really didn’t need me.
This keeps happening more and more — I find myself butting heads with my teenage son because I want to offer advice and either he doesn’t want it or doesn’t need it (or both). And I am slowly learning to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. This most recent incident was pretty clear evidence that sometimes, shutting up is the best help I can offer.
Because sometimes my son just wants me to listen. He’s not looking for a solution from me. And really, what a gift that he wants to talk to me and share his thoughts and experiences with me since, in the past and often still now, I have practically had to pry the details from him with a crowbar. And what an incredible thing to witness as he comes up with a solution to a problem or makes a point more creative or smart than the one I could have come up with myself.
It’s not that my son isn’t listening to me. It’s that he’s reaching the age where he is independently applying the lessons I’ve taught him over the years. He has been listening. Yes, there is still lots of wisdom I can still impart to him, but we have reached the point where he gets to apply what he has learned. And, again, he’s also learned plenty of new things that I can’t take credit for. He astounds me every day with the insightful things he says.
It’s so easy to imagine parenting as a montage of lectures rather than a give-and-take. And I guess a lot of the early years of parenting are like that. We have our kids’ rapt attention (even if they’re acting stubborn, they’re listening) and their lack of experience and know-how is clear and undeniable. We as the parents must be in full control.
But big kids want and need to make decisions about their lives, from big things like whether to take on a more challenging course load at school or quit a sport they’ve been playing for years, to how to handle missed homework assignments or disputes with friends.
And the reason we must step back is bigger than our kids simply needing to develop autonomy and confidence in working out their problems on their own. It’s also because they are capable. This is the part I was missing. My kid is 13 now. Yes, I still have much to teach him, and yes I am still the parent, still the one with the final say. But I’m not actually smarter than he is. In fact, in many ways he is smarter than I am. And as long as he continues to show a willingness to self-advocate and the ability to do so effectively, as much as possible I need to step aside and let him take the reins.
Otherwise, what were all those years of teaching for?