Listen. Don’t tell.

Listen. Don’t tell.

Published February 13, 2023
It's always sad to hear about seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between parents and children, many of which last for years or even decades, and some may never get a chance to be resolved. Since each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, it's almost impossible to generalize, but what I was told today is a story of a father who wants to design a life that he thinks is good for his daughter, while the daughter wants to own her own life. I'm sure most people won't be unfamiliar with this kind of story, but it's not always clear whether it's the parents working hard to death in order to exchange a better future for their kids, or if it's the kid fostering courage and independence to hold themselves accountable. As we know, different people like to tell different stories, and no one is crazy.
I'd like to share my two cents on the nuances between parent-child relationships. In my experience, it is more often caused by the parent's tendency to be overly controlling rather than the child's rebelliousness. Children are rarely treated with respect and equality from the moment they are born.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
― Carl Jung
Many parents feel like victims and only accept stories that validate their victimhood. It's easy to blame life when it throws us a curveball. Students complain about teachers treating them unfairly, employees grumble about their managers not appreciating their talents, and immigrants feel disheartened by discrimination and cultural clashes. Sound familiar? But what's the reality? Teachers can't always be biased, managers can't always be incompetent, and racists can't be everywhere. People often assume that everything happens to them and that there's no chance of things going the other way. With this mindset, they lack the patience and empathy to listen to the other side—their child's—and are filled with bitterness that no one understands how hard they work, even though they never consider if the obligation is necessary in the first place. They may turn to friends for help, but what they don't realize is that they're not looking for advice or a solution; they just want someone to confirm that it's their "bad luck" to have to spend so much time and money raising a rebellious child. They just want to vent.
Acting miserably doesn't make you miserable. There must be a reason or logic behind such behaviors. It is a unique human ability to sympathize with the misfortunes of others, but this doesn't apply to someone who pretends to be blind and asks for empathy. As Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, said, "The first principle is not to fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool." Ask yourself the simple question: "Do I love my daughter because she is being herself or because she is the kind of person I want her to be?" In the latter case, you are treating her no differently than a private property or a puppy. You may be offended by this question and think it too stupid to answer, substituting it with the cliche, "Whatever parents are doing, we're always doing this for you". But wait a second, do you really know what your daughter wants or likes? Have you ever spent time with her, sitting together and discussing her dreams and prospects? If not, how can you justify that your unconditional care and love isn't self-deception?
The child may not know precisely what they want, but they know exactly what they don't want. It's much harder to identify what you like than what you don't. This applies to any aspect of life, such as subjects, relationships, and careers. The main issue isn't that people don't know anything; it's that they don't try anything at all. Society often dictates a linear life path, which is often determined by parental expectations. This ignores individual needs and desires. It's common for Eastern parents to expect the same things from their children: good grades, a stable job, and a safe marriage. This is as if they are the same person or made from the same mold. Unfortunately, they rarely question the status quo. Their reasoning is simply, "everyone else is doing it". They remain oblivious to the potential downsides of this life plan.
Good grades without understanding are just memorization with no practical use, killing curiosity. A stable job without intellectual stimulation is just monotonous tasks to be automated by robots, stifling personal growth. A safe marriage without love and sacrifice from both sides is just an exchange of status or goods, leading to a high divorce rate and broken families.
Based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, once basic survival and social needs are met, we naturally progress to higher pursuits. This is founded upon the awareness of self and what we genuinely like and dislike. It's their right to get to know themselves better by pursuing what they want, as long as they are willing to pay the price.
How do you figure out what food, music, or sports you like? You're not born with a manual that clearly outlines your preferences. We're more like an empty hard drive, waiting to be filled with data from our environment. This data comes from our interactions with people around us. It forms a social circle, with family at the center and expanding to friends, community, and society.
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The closer our relationships are, the more they influence and shape us. It's not just about genetic resemblance; our habits and beliefs are shaped by our parents, environment, and culture. To really know what we like, we need to try enough of what we don't like to find the right fit, rather than blindly accepting what others tell us.
Failing to try enough is arguably a bigger failure than failing at things we're not good at. Good judgement is an invaluable skill that must be earned, not a gift to be given. Just like any kind of mastery requires deliberate practice, everyone starts from white-belt. It's only if we are humble and brave enough to overcome our awkwardness that we can progress to higher levels.
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
― Stephen R. Covey
Making a deliberate effort to understand your child is the first step. Although it may be difficult, there is no shortcut to mutual understanding. It requires both time and effort. It is not about projecting your own needs onto your child, nor is it about explaining yourself without taking others' interests into account. It is also not about mindlessly listening without seeking to understand and engage. It’s more about acting as a mentor instead of a dictator.
You must learn to suspend your judgement, be willing to listen rather than speak, and only explain yourself if you have thoroughly understood the other side. With these attitudes in place, it will be much easier to have a high-quality conversation that deepens understanding of each other's perspectives. This can be used as the foundation for a strong bond based on trust and transparency, rather than a weak connection enforced by authority and compliance.