A Word from the Whys: Listening to My Teenager


As in most relationships that mean anything, it was easy to blow things way out of proportion. My husband and I returned from the family reunion about 8:30 last night, expecting to pick up our sixteen-year-old daughter and go blithely from the hot city to the cool of our cabin to sleep. We had planned it all before we left. She was working, would have gotten home in time, and our evening would be serene and cozy. She had had her date for the week with Rich and had assured us that she had “so much to do” that she couldn’t go to the reunion, had her hair to wash, and would be home alone all evening until we came to pick her up for our jaunt to the canyon.

So it was with somewhat smug parental astonishment that we found taped to the hood of the kitchen stove a note: “Dear Mom and Dad, Rich and I decided on the spur to go to an 8:00 movie. Hope you had a good time. I’ll be home right after. I love you.” It was signed “Katie Ann Thayne,” the name she uses only when calling up its ingratiating thoroughness to doting parents who christened her all of that.

A simple enough note, not undifferent from many taped in that same place by a household of comings and goings over lots of years. But this was the youngest of our five daughters, our last little chick at home, and having her out on whatever town she and some still mysterious young man chose to occupy for an evening seemed suddenly fraught with more than our midlife sense of crisis could handle. Where was she? How could she possibly have presumed to impose this irrational spontaneity on our so-well-planned time? Didn’t she know that she needed our permission for this sort of flight? Hadn’t she already played tennis, gone swimming, had chats on the lawn, and been on that date this week with Rich? Didn’t she know she was breaking a basic family rule?

And what movie? With all the strains on sense and sensibility around, how did we have any notion of what line they might be in? And what about this Rich? What did we really know about him—except that he had a good smile and played a great game of water polo, was wry and winning to talk to while he waited for Katie, and, according to her, was “one of the few really good guys at school—even at stomps.”

Going to the cabin was now out of the question. The injustice of being suddenly corralled by the impetuosity of a teen-age daughter sent us both scurrying into our own outlets for indignation. I began ironing with a vengence, and Mel turned the TV on to a show he had always hated. An hour passed, then two, almost three. It was getting toward time when any 8:00 show would have long been out, food even at a chew-and-chat rate consumed, and any long-night’s journey unto home charted and completed. I had thought of every infraction of any rule in any book that Katie had ever indulged in any of her sixteen years on earth. Mel had isolated a dozen penalties, and together we had decided that Rich was worthless, maybe even dangerous, and Katie was worse. There would be no taking the car, no going out even with her friends, and meals were definitely in jeopardy.

But luckily at seventeen minutes to twelve, when I went to mail a letter, I had a chance to sit alone in a dark car in the driveway and ponder a few things. One was something my father had told me and illustrated time and again: “Never start talking until you’ve listened for at least as long as you plan to talk.” Another came just as urgently to pound in my head: “Wonder a little about ‘why’ as well as ‘what’ in any situation.”

And then popped up the prize, an outgrowth of both of the above: “Everything good that is ever accomplished has come about of someone’s constructive curiosity.”

I sat in the car and let myself drift, slowly, I admit, into constructive curiosity. And as I did, I began to wonder all right. About Katie. About how she felt. About why she’d do something so out of character with what she usually did. About Rich. About who he was. About what they were for each other—and about what an 8:00 show on the spur might have meant to two kids on a Saturday night.

Out of my wondering came some remembering. I went in and began remembering some things with Mel, like my sixteen-year-old time on the shores of Bear Lake, dancing in the sand to a blaring jukebox with an old boyfriend I hadn’t thought of in thirty years. A boy my mother never exactly liked. Mel remembered his two-hour-long phone conversations with a girl over “The Hit Parade,” sequestered in a broom closet from a father who would have pushed buttons on any conversation over three minutes. “And look how terrific we turned out!” we laughingly agreed.

In a quarter hour of wondering, of chuckling and remembering, we found out more about that certain age for each other than we had known in twenty-eight years of living together. And, luckily, our sense of proportion and of humor came racing to rescue us.

By the time the lights of the front window told us Rich’s Bronco was in the driveway, at 12:02, Mel, convenient coward that he is, said, “Why don’t you have a girl-to-girl chat with her and let me know what in the world she’s thinking.” That seemed a good plan actually—one-to-one, not two on one.

And we did, Katie and I. We had a fine chat. One of the best ever. She came in smiling—if a bit docile—wondering herself what our reaction to her almost-forgotten note would be. Thank goodness my anger had been quelled by curiosity, my curiosity piqued by a genuine concern for making things better, not worse.

Just as constructive curiosity had pulled me out of myself, my interest touched off interest in her—for me. And although we covered some pretty uncomfortable topics, it was with a sense of discovery, of searching out a path that both of us could occupy and travel with our feelings for ourselves and for each other in positive order.

First, I listened for at least as long as I thought I might like to talk—quite a while. I found out why, not just what. Katie had gotten off work early, a rare happiness. And with her hair wet from a marvelous shower on a hot late afternoon, she had heard from Rich. There was a good show on, and he too, by the kind of coincidence native only to high school confederates, had gotten off work early. “I knew you’d understand,” she said, “the way things just work out sometimes, and I figured I’d just do what I’d do if you were here. Isn’t that what you always say to do?” She had me—by my own inclinings.

I was intrigued. By the time we had gone through the getting there and the show, which they were too late to get in to and so had had to go to another, one which I definitely wanted to hear all about, we were both primed for a real talk—one about the whys of more than just going to a show: Why Rich? Why a thousand feelings new to young pulses and dispositions? Why a disregard for sixteen years of living with our household’s particular particulars? Why a one-night imposition of one upon the other? And for her—why our worry? Why rules anyhow? What for the future?

By the time it was my turn to “talk,” we had worked our way through so much that needed to be said that I had nothing to “say”—only hugs to give and private arrivals to cherish. And assurance to nudge into a sleepy husband that what had been fostered had been restoration rather than rebellion—for both of us.

Going to sleep I wondered a little, of course, if I had been “strict” enough. What rule-ridden parent wouldn’t? And then I thought of Mark’s interpolation on the Savior’s golden rule: “And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding” (Mark 12:33). The understanding that can come only through constructive curiosity. Like loving, it is the great freer.

Today I’ll be free to wonder about new things—about how to hit a better forehand or coax some life into a geranium that got too dry, or prepare more ably for a Sunday School lesson, a talk, an afternoon with a grandchild. And I rather think that constructive curiosity can enliven any relationship I want to build—with a friend, in a classroom, with that aunt who is doing battle with a too crowded past and an uninhabited present.

Wanting to know, combined with wanting to do something positive about knowing, is what allows a worthwhile performance anywhere—on a committee or project, at a conference, in a marriage, as a parent. It is what persuades enlightened reading of a scripture or a balance sheet. It is what must be behind every productive conversion, diet, sale, or probe into the unknown. It is the way to build any kingdom, on earth or in heaven. Constructive curiosity can impel and illuminate every getting up, getting done, falling in love, or making amends. It is the secret in any meaningful meeting or prayer.

Letting constructive curiosity work last night with Katie was not miring us in the soft sand of permissiveness, but supplying us a footing in the firm clay of understanding. She came to know the reasons behind our concern and our rules and, I think, to respect them both. And I hope maybe another Saturday night. … Well, who really knows? But I do know I’ve been graced by an insight I’d like to cling to, one I wish could rub off on those children of ours just as my father’s notions glazed me last night.

Come to think of it, I do believe Katie Ann actually wanted to know when she asked this morning after Sunday School, “By the way, dad, how did your lesson go?” At least she seemed to be listening all the time she was dialing her best friend’s number.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ronald O. Stucki

Emma Lou Warner Thayne, writer, lecturer, and mother of five daughters, teaches Sunday School in the Monument Park Third Ward, Salt Lake City.