How Are You Listening?

Hippodilly Circus Contributor AS King is one of my favorite authors.  When I recommend her books to people, which I do often, I say that she is so honest with her characters’ voices that I often read a paragraph and feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. She captures the feelings of adolescence so honestly and without sentimentality that I am yanked right back to my teenage life and emotions. Her books heal my teenage self and let me know that someone else out there understands how I felt and still feel.  She is also passionate about changing the way we treat teens and wrote this post for Hippodillly Circus for which I am very grateful. 

I have this page-a-day calendar—it’s a Zen calendar and it’s ironic. Here’s why. I can never keep up with my page-a-day Zen calendar. It’s always yesterday when I arrive in my office. More accurately, it’s usually three days ago and then I have to find today’s page, rip off all the days in between and process centuries-old wisdom in a minute versus having a whole day to think about it. I’m kinda kidding about that part. Sometimes I don’t read the old ones at all. I was away for six days recently and ripped off six days of wisdom and put them in the trash because I just wanted to have the right date on my calendar. Not very Zen at all, if you ask me.

Yesterday’s quote, though, relates to something I’ve been meaning to write about here at Hippodilly Circus.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”—Steven Covey

Last time I wrote here Get Over It I said: “Why do adults separate themselves so much from the teen experience? I have my theories. I will explore them in future posts.”

In that post I talked about the undermining of teenagers and the subsequent expectation that they will arrive at “adulthood” with great self-esteem after years of being told that what they say and think is silly. I talk about this a lot when I do school visits and I tell students that many adults seem to have this disconnect and disrespect. I ask students to please resist it. I ask them to stay strong and believe in themselves and their dreams no matter how many adults roll their eyes at them. Students often approach me after my presentations and tell me that I was the first adult in their life who called out this appalling treatment of teenagers and their dreams. While this makes me happy, it also makes me sad. I don’t want to be the first adult who has taken any teenager seriously.

I am not a scientist, so I can’t come up with a solid reason for this teen-bashing culture. Like I said earlier, I’ve been thinking about this for decades and have theories. I’d like to bounce this one off you and see what you think.

There is a barrier between adults and teenagers. I believe it was built by adults because they saw their teen years as embarrassing and disposable. Off to college classes, keg parties, and eventually responsible jobs, and BAM, suddenly, I am an adult now. Right?

But teen years are not disposable.

Teen years are recyclable.

I believe teen years are constantly recycling. As we start working regular jobs. As we react to situations as adults. As we make decisions. As we date, marry, parent, live. I believe that who we are as adults developed in our teen years.

How does this relate to the quote from my Zen calendar? If more adults listened to teens with the intent to understand, then they would not only understand teenagers better, but they would also understand themselves better. Growth—growing up—does not stop at 18 or 22 or 35. It is a lifelong thing.

Anyone who has ever planted a tree should understand this.

I’m pretty sure teens understand this even though they are constantly bombarded with this demand to grow up. And yet, I don’t even know what that means. What is grow up? It is some sort of finite thing the way we talk about it. It is a finish line. It seems to indicate that one day, one’s emotional, intellectual, and physical states will all suddenly be finished. Like the instructions on a boxed cake. (Stick a toothpick in the middle to make sure it’s done, y’all.)

Humans beings are not cakes.

We are more like trees.

And while I’d like my Hibiscus syriacus hedge to grow faster, I have yet to walk into my back yard and tell it to grow up.

Many adults have this idea that adulthood is achieved or earned by exhibiting a set of adult-approved responses to situations. Once these have been accomplished, you are done. Free from the shackles of teenhood. Free to start handing out advice and telling teenagers what to do in order to be more mature.

We cut ourselves off from our own former teenagers, stop listening with the intent to understand, but are more than happy to reply, reply, reply.

We tell teens that if they just listened to us, they would grow up faster. Which isn’t true at all. Because they are growing up just fine. And they are growing up at their own pace. Just like a tree. And words from us—whether it’s advice or scolding or explaining how they should think—mean very little because teenagers already have their own words, thoughts, and very fantastic ideas the same as we did when we were teenagers. Except many of us disposed of those things when we shed our teen skin due to this embarrassment of having once been a sapling. Many of us are not recycling ourselves. Many of us are not in tune with who we’ve been since we were born because we decide to toss out everything before that finite age—the age where we were accepted into adulthood by the adults around us. Which is ironic, really, because many of the adults around us were not all that mature.

When I shared a link on Facebook to my original Hippodilly Circus post, I said, “I want to spend the rest of my life talking about the systemic psychological hazing teenagers in our culture undergo. We’ve all said stuff. We’ve all rolled our eyes at teenagers who are learning to live life for the first time. Why didn’t we have the same attitude about our toddlers when they were learning to walk?”

I live next door to a kid who is learning to walk. Never once has anyone rolled their eyes at this kid for falling down. And yet those adults who clap and smile at this little kid will no doubt one day judge another adult for falling down at life—getting divorced, becoming an addict, losing a job, not being whatever their idea of mature is. A friend of mine is an alcoholic. When another friend of mine heard someone worry aloud about my alcoholic friend, she said, “People get what they deserve.”

What the hell is that?

That is a perfect picture of a person who is not listening with the intent to understand.

And they are everywhere. Picture this: A tree with all but its highest branches sheared off. That’s them.

I don’t know if this theory holds up for you, reader, but I know I’ve been watching and listening for a long time and it seems to make sense to me. I know that I can’t teach anybody anything because I am my own tree: growing, recycling, trying to survive cold winters and droughts. I want to listen because I don’t have a reply.

I have many journals from my teen years. I was recently reading them. As it turns out, I was struggling with the same ideas at age 17 that I’m struggling with now. Only now, because I took those ideas seriously enough to write them down during my teen years, they have grown with me as I grew. It’s not that I never grew up; it’s that I never believed growing up was finite and I never wanted to look down at anyone and believe myself bigger no matter how tall my tree got.

I never wanted to be a leggy tree with a trunk void of branches within reach from the grass. I want to be climbed. As I grow taller, I want to look at those lower limbs—my early limbs—and watch the squirrels play on them and watch the baby birds learn how to fly a bit closer to safety and I want to appreciate what those branches are for. They are as important (if not more important) than the newest of my growth. They are closer to my roots—to the ground. They are technically the oldest parts of me.

I believe they are also the wisest.

A.S. King is the award-winning author of highly-acclaimed young adult novels including Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Reality Boy, the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Ask the Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants, 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz and the upcoming I Crawl Through It. After fifteen years living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives in Pennsylvania. Find more at

6 thoughts on “How Are You Listening?

  1. I started that blog in March. Can you believe that? Next time, I will try to go faster. Or maybe my Zen calendar will advise against that. But either way, thank you for posting. I love this place. ❤


  2. The idea of adolescence and separating out being a teen from being an adult is a fairly recent one. We keep people in school until their early 20s and that their labor is valueless until they’ve been working for years for little or no money. I think a lot of our attitudes about teenagers stem from the fact that we have to justify treating another human being so differently.

    So we’ve created teenagers to justify our behaviors. I have family members who are teachers and they often talk about how teenage brains are underdveloped (i.e., “X part of the brain isn’t developed yet). And that kind of talk makes me nervous because it sounds like their trying to rationalize treating them poorly.


    • This is fantastic. Thank you for your comment. I agree so much that we have these weird structures–the value of labor, the value of age–that help this idea of separation.
      While the frontal cortex doesn’t fully form until the early 20’s, that doesn’t mean that a human being can’t act mature/be valuable until that time. I usually hear the frontal cortex idea expressed when it comes to the effect of substances or other behaviors on the forming brain (and those have definite scientific backup), but I’ve never heard it used as an excuse to disrespect. But I have no doubt that it is used to disrespect.

      Considering I just visited a resort where 40-50 year old adults acted like entitled fools and didn’t seem to understand the proper use of sunscreen while my kids covered up and said please and thank you, I have a hard time understanding why people equate maturity with age. 🙂


  3. I don’t know when the cultural shift happened, but I think you’re both right and somewhere along the line adults “otherized” teenhood. I thinl it’s strongly perpetuated be adults who were traumatized in their teens or at least were made to feel stupid or awkward. Those painful experiences are complex and difficult and many parents, teachers and other adults are uncomfortable dealing with teen proble.s like this, so we end up putting teens off and encouraging them to just toe the line until they magically become adults and can work their own problems out.
    The other side of all thisnis that most adults woild rather just deny or forget the pain of their teen years, and that perpetuates the pattern and leaves many adults with unresolved feelings that can haunt them.
    Teens are not “other.” They’re not feebleminded. They are growing and changing and trying to male sense of the world, which is what all of us “adults” are doing, too.


  4. I love this post so much. 🙂 I have a mug that says “I’m not old–I’m a recycled teenager”, and I love it because it fits my young-at-heart nature. But now, the words on that mug will have even deeper meaning for me, reminding me to honour who I was, who I am know, and the person I am growing into. Thanks, Amy. You are awesome, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

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