The value of being heard
She’s five – I thought. I also thought things like: She must have seen cable at Uncle Brian’s house. Now we’ll have to move. I never liked Uncle Brian much anyway. I thought things like that. Normal, rational things. Then I took a deep breath and feigned calm.
“A doobie is like a cigarette. People smoke it. Okay?” I pulled out my chair and she pulled out hers.
“If you smoke cigarettes you die,” she stated with the confidence of a Surgeon General.
“Yeah… pretty much. I guess that’s true, sweetie. Smoking can make you sick and some people even die.”
“Mommy says you die.”
“Yeah… So do you understand what a doobie is now?” I spilled a box of crayons onto the kitchen table and handed her a stack of construction paper, hoping the interrogation was over and we could draw together instead, or at least have lighter father-daughter conversation about, I don’t know, colors of finger nail polish she’s into this week or how to make a fart sound with your armpit. Anything.
“Can you take me to see them make doobie?”
“Well, it’s not like shovels or pencils. I mean, they don’t make them in a big factory somewhere like that… I don’t think.”
I imagined a steel box miles wide and long. Inside, union workers pull levers and pack joints in printed cartons and head back to their homes in the suburbs when the whistle blows at five.
“They grow plants. Then they cut the plants down and dry them out in the sun. And then they crunch up the plants when they’re dry and roll them up in a little piece of paper. And that’s how you make a doobie — how they make a doobie. But we can’t go see them do that.”
“Then they make it on fire like a cigarette and they breathe it and die,” she continued matter-of-factly while adding a red smile to the yellow sun beaming down from the upper right corner of her paper.
“Pretty much.” My page was still blank. Suddenly realizing how dry my mouth was, I stood to get a glass of water. “Do you want anything to drink?”
“No. Why can’t we see them make it?”
“Doobie? I mean doobies? Well, it’s against the rules to make doobies, sweetie. Doobies are drugs. Some drugs are good for your body, like cold medicine and stomachache medicine, you know, and some drugs are bad for you. If you use drugs that are bad for you, or hang out with people who take drugs that are bad, the police can write you a ticket.”
“And go to jail.” Tiny pink billowy flowers bloomed from the end of her crayon along the bottom of her paper.
“Yeah, sometimes.” I swallowed mouthfuls of cold water and prayed there were no more questions. When did my little girl become an expert on our criminal justice system?
“Why do people smoke doobies? They’re gonna go to jail.”
“You know how when you get scared at night, you like Mommy to come sit with you? And when I get sad, I like to make music or color with you?”
“Some people are really sad or really scared, and they think if they use bad drugs they’ll be happy… I guess.”
“But they get dead.” And with that, she slid down from her chair and posted her work on the refrigerator with a magnet and a look of satisfaction.
“So if anyone ever talks to you about trying drugs, you need to come tell Mommy or Daddy or Uncle Brian or Aunt Amy, okay? So we can tell you if it’s a good drug that will make your body well, or if it’s a bad drug. Will you do that? Okay?”
“Yeah.” She removed another page from the stack in front of her and gripped a black crayon in her fingers. “I’m making a farm.”
“Okay. Well, is that all you wanted to know about doobies then?”
She drew a cow and a farmer and a barn. I drew a factory with odd smelling smoke coming from its chimneys.
I couldn’t stand it any more.
“Where’d you hear about doobies, Gabriella?”
“On the radio they sang, ‘doobie doobie doo doo.’”
“Oh.” And I pinned my drawing to the refrigerator alongside her smiling sunshine and pink flowers.
That five year-old is ten now, and she hasn’t stopped asking tough questions. How can that girl be pregnant if she’s not married? How did Uncle Joel get cancer? Do I have to go to college? Am I pretty?
And just like when she was five, she’s not always asking what it seems. Behind every question mark may hide complex, little girl worries and wonderings and stories she’s afraid of or doesn’t know how to share.
It takes time, eye-to-eye, back and forth, to get to the stuff beneath the question, to what’s really on her mind.
And this may be what little people — especially little girls — need most from their dads. To be heard. For the world to stop, the laptop to close, the TV to turn off, the newspaper to be folded and put away — to matter enough to be heard and truly understood.
Before being answered.
So I take walks with my kids around the block at dusk. We start the bedtime routine a little earlier than we used to so there’s plenty of time for end-of-day questions and confessions from the bunk beds. We go on dates, one on one, for a Cracker Barrel breakfast or a pretzel at the mall or an afternoon of hiking through the woods.
Or I spill a box of crayons on the kitchen table and pray no one asks about doobies.
How do you connect one-on-one with your kids? In what ways do you go out of your way to understand your kids?
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