Tuesday, June 11, 2013

When they ask you to listen - a post about parents, children, and privilege

Did your parents ever tell you to listen?
When they did that, did it mean "hear me," or "understand me," or "obey me"?

In my memories of childhood, I have been asked to listen a lot of times. Sometimes it has only meant "hear me." Sometimes it has meant "understand me." And yes, often it has meant "obey me." I hear myself using the same expression with my kids, and I am constantly asking myself if I should be doing things differently. But still, my job as parent is to establish the rules for appropriate behavior.* Why do I have to do this? Because I want to have a kind of peace in my house, and I want to prepare my kids to behave appropriately* in situations outside the home.

*Appropriate behavior is culturally defined.

Actually, that's not a footnote. Appropriate behavior is culturally defined. It differs from one family to another, and from one cultural group to another, and from one country to another.

But let's remember the listening, for a second. When a parent tells a child to listen, do they give reasons why listening is the right thing to do? What kind?

1. Listen to me because I'm your mom/dad and I say so.

2. Listen to me because I'm telling you what the world is like and there will be consequences outside the home if you don't.

3. Listen to me because we are family and you should be sensitive to my needs as I should be to yours.

I use all three of these, but I hate to use number one. Number one is a power move. Do you recognize it from your own experience? How did you feel about it when you heard it? I really don't know anybody who likes number one.

I'm not that big a fan of number two either. Whenever I use number two, I find myself apologizing for the world. Something like this: I hate to say this, kids, but the world isn't fair sometimes, and so you should be aware of that.

I prefer to take a more number-three-like approach to the world, and say things like "Kids, you should know what swear words are, but you should also know that people in the world can be very upset by the sound of them, even if they aren't the targets, and bad things could happen. So please don't get in the habit."

My point here is that in the third situation, persuasion relies on evoking solidarity with a person rather than with exercising power over that person. 

Now I'm going to look at this as a metaphor for privilege. You must know one thing first, however: I'm absolutely not trying to suggest that oppressed minorities are children. (If it comes to that, I believe that children themselves are human beings who should be listened to and respected.) I'm going to be putting persons of privilege into both the parent and child positions, because I believe we can learn something from the metaphorical comparison.

A parent is the representative of a larger culture. Parents are constantly saying, "this is what this means," "this is how we behave in X situation," "Now you have to do Y because it's the right thing to do." A parent also has the privilege to run the show. But which parent is infallible? Who does not make mistakes?

As a parent, I can tell you that I've made plenty of errors. And not a few of those have arisen from a failure to listen and understand my children's point of view. Much as we try, we can't fully know our children's minds. We can't guess at the richness of their contribution to our understanding of the world. Why else would there be so many coffee table books about children's wisdom? But still, it's so easy just to say "I know how the world works." It's so easy to talk over children, or to rewrite what they say into messages that conform to our preexisting understanding. Because we know better.

This is bias.

Think about it. Yes, we know a lot about the world, but we were children once - did our parents really know better every time? Just because we've now been in the world a few years more doesn't mean we've begun to grasp all of it. We don't know what goes on in our neighbors' houses, much less in another country, at any given time. When did we start to know everything? We never really did - we're just put in the position of having to represent our culture and teach our children what to do, and how to live. We have to have authority. But authority can come from power and from solidarity both. To me, teaching my children honestly means talking about all the things I don't know, and still have to learn. To talk about how sometimes I do things that upset people, without realizing it, and how I deal with it afterward. That uncertainty is something they will have to deal with, too.

It's hard to say "I don't know," sometimes. Maybe that's why some people find it so hard to realize that when it comes to privilege, there are a lot of things they don't know - that they just don't see, because of their privileged position. The world looks different from a different pair of eyes. That, and every person's circumstances are slightly different, so that no person's experience entirely matches the norm - those are important things to remember, too. 

It's not right to try to take the parental position with another adult. I'm sure most people out there would readily agree with that. Plenty of people resent their bosses for being too parental. Plenty of people still struggle with actual parent relationships as adults.

Here's where the trap lies, in my view. The privilege situation is too much like the parental situation, because a very similar power dynamic is already there. Just as a child grows up hearing different versions of the same adult narrative of the way things are, minorities are surrounded by the narratives of the privileged.

I have been on both sides of this - as most of us are, due to the fact that privilege cuts in many intersecting directions. Race. Gender. Gender identity. Wealth. In-groups and out-groups for every context simultaneously.

So, say I'm in an argument, a persuasive discussion, or even just a regular conversation. Of course, I want people to listen to my point of view, and consider my worldview on its own merits. But if I'm in the privileged position in a conversation, I have to realize some things. First of all, that I'd better be listening extra hard for things that don't fit my usual narratives, and my understanding of how the world works. Second, that I don't want to fall into the trap that parents often fall into with children, of subconsciously "correcting" what they hear to fit those narratives. And third, that when I say "listen," that message comes alongside all the power of my community. Too often it carries the parental power connotation, "obey," whether I want it to or not.

The last thing I want to do is say to anyone, "listen to me because I'm in power." And I don't want to say "listen to me because this is the way the world works," since my knowledge of the world is clearly limited to what I can see from my structural position. I want to go more for number three, "listen to me because we are fellow human beings and this is as much as I know, but I want to be sensitive to your needs as much as you are to mine."

But even that last option is fraught in privilege situations, because how can I measure my own sensitivity? I can't safely assume that I'm equalizing my footing with another adult across a privilege borderline, because I can't erase history, and there's a high likelihood that there is still more I'm not seeing, much less understanding.

So yes, I'll express my view. But as much as I can, I want to make sure that I'm listening, rather than telling others to listen. I want to be the child - and to encourage others to assume the child position more often - because children are learners. Why should we not aspire to take the child's position relative to a culture we don't know? Why should we not realize that other cultures are all around us, experiencing our same reality simultaneously, yet in totally different ways?

We struggle through our relationships with our parents, and with our children. We do our best, day after day, because we realize that the relationship isn't going away. This might be a good way to think about privilege as well. It isn't going away. We should expect struggle. And we should do our best to listen outside our comfortable narratives, because nobody knows everything.

Thanks for listening. I know this is an imperfect post, but it's a distillation of my feelings on a number of topics I've discussed recently. Thanks also to all of you from whom I am learning every day.


  1. This is a great post, and a timely topic considering recent events in the SF writing world. It is also timely because I'll soon have my kiddos home all day with me during the summer and I know those words will be flying from my mouth on occasion too. :) Thanks.

    1. Thanks, JLC. Good luck this summer! My kids only have two more days of school... :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this post. Those words also come out my mouth often and it also makes me think if I am using it the right way. Sometimes it even makes me think of the effects that it will have on my kids. Thank you for making me understand. It's a very good read and it's really informative.

  3. There comes a time in the life of your children - when they leave home, are on their own financially, and live far away, when you find they won't communicate with you unless they want to and it is very sobering.

    You still have so much to tell them about how you think the world operates, about how they need to take some things more seriously than they seem to be doing, but you can't do any of that if you have taken the wrong parental position - and they never call.

    It has been difficult choosing, again, which battles to fight.

    The process is very different for my generation than it was for my parents'. I feel a lot of us are in the middle: we had to listen to our parents, and now we have to listen to our children.

    It's complicated - and a work in progress all the time. But eye-opening - and extremely good for a writer, because the learning keeps me from hardening of the opinions.

    I hope I continue to learn forever.

  4. And this is why you have people for kids. Even being aware of this kind of thing makes you better able to equalize as you call it.

    A debate assignment in high school taught me without a doubt that supreme confidence in your point of view comes from commitment to your narrative. It has nothing to do with whether or not that narrative is sound.

    Oddly, I had a recent encounter with my youngest in which the roles were reversed. I discovered (thanks to him mocking my responses :)) that I had incorporated both the factual narrative of genetics and the cultural narrative of genetics, but that over time, the cultural had overwhelmed the factual until it took reminders for me to recognize what I already knew.

    That might sound like a tangent, but it really isn't. It's the awareness that even things you know might not be known like you think they're known, and caution is the key to conveying both cultural norms (speaking for the society) and pointing out ways in which culture and life contradict (the whole "life isn't fair" speech).

    Good luck with the balance. It's not easy, but then few things worth doing are :).

    1. Commitment to your narrative is a good phrase, Margaret. It's certainly something I see a lot. The cultural norms thing is best approached with caution when it comes to children, but I don't think caution is enough when it comes to adults. Best to stay off speaking for society entirely in that case, and just stick to speaking for oneself.

      Thanks for your comment.