You just don’t understand…

At a cafe recently, a mother and her preteen daughter argue about something ultimately inconsequential but in the heat of the moment of great import. At the mothers increasingly terse replies, the daughter carps, “That’s not it.” Frustrated, she finally blurts, “You just don’t understand….” The daughter retreats into silence.

At the dinner table the other night, #2 tries to explain something. She searches for words. As we respond to what we think she means, she grows increasingly upset at our seeming refusal to understand her. “That’s not what I mean,” she objects. As she starts to cry, she complains, “You don’t understand….” #2 finishes dinner in silence.

I was struck and alarmed by the similarity of these two scenes: a child’s inability to make a parent understand what she meant and, in the end, the breakdown of communication between child and parent.

Parents often don’t understand their children, their priorities, their seeming inability to listen and remember (except when you don’t really want them to do either), their music, their preferred pastimes, their dubious-until-they-become-obsessive hygiene practices, etc. As parents, we often place the burden on them to explain those priorities to us. What happens when they can’t, as #2 couldn’t? What responsibility do we as parents have for helping our children express themselves? What if I rephrased my observation:

I was struck and alarmed by the similarity of these two scenes: a parent’s unwillingness to understand a child and, in the end, the breakdown of communication between parent and child.

Perhaps we will get further if we approach encounters with our children with empathy, generosity, and respect. Rather than trying to shoehorn their thoughts and expressions into our molds, give them the space and the resources to articulate their own ideas. Work to understand their world and its priorities. We may not agree with those priorities and may try to disabuse our children of them. But we can’t know that until we understand.

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