Listening out loud

My two-year-old daughter adopted a new phrase last week: “I don’t know.”

  • “I don’t know,” she said when I asked her what she did at the park. 
  • “I don’t know,” she said when I asked her where she left her doll. 
  • “I don’t know,” she said when I asked her why she changed her clothes again. 

I’m not too concerned she’s acquired an indecisive nature. Rather, I’ve noticed, she tends to latch onto a phrase and then use it repeatedly, as though trying it on for size.

In what contexts is it appropriate?

What reaction does it provoke?

What power does it wield?

Last month it was “I don’t want to,” leading me to believe this recent ambivalence isn’t her true nature. Quite the contrary, she was very certain about what she did and did not want to do—the latter primarily being whatever I proposed: have some avocado, let Nana’s dog sleep, put on your panties.

As I blundered through how to gently encourage a change of mind, I wondered if this small glimpse of “defiance” might actually be a beautiful gift to nurture. 

She lives today unencumbered by peer pressure, social norms, and insecure self-consciousness. Instead, she’s free to live out loud: to test the waters of self-expression, assertiveness, and discovery. And my response helps shape her view of self, her perception of the world, and the confidence she has to continue speaking up. 

It’s taken me years to relearn that I have a voice and my voice matters. I’ve silenced the internal “I don’t want tos” for an external “OK” countless times because I didn’t have the courage and self-respect to value my own ideas, desires, and goals. I want so much more for my daughter.

I want her to grow into a woman of humble confidence and gentle assertiveness, a woman with a voice, full-bodied and bold, that speaks from a heart unashamed of loving truth.

I want her to possess courage because she loves God, respects herself, and cares about others.

I want her to know how to speak up. No, not merely know how to speak up: I want her actions to align fearlessly with her convictions, a woman of integrity in both word and deed.

And how I respond to her today powerfully directs that trajectory. I’m living out love through listening—or at least I’m trying to daily.

That love doesn’t accommodate her every wish, but it does create the safe space where she’s free to vocalize.

She’s still trying on for size the voice God has given her.

She’s still figuring out how to understand herself and communicate with others.

And I’m still trying on for size this loving, gentle mama role that nurtures that voice. I’m still figuring out how to understand her and what she’s really trying to communicate. 

While dinner does need to get eaten, Aslan can’t keep a toddler clutched to his furry neck forever, and those panties do need to find a body before bedtime, I desire something far more than compliance: I desire increasing mindfulness about how I inspire action. Because I, too, am asking explicit questions similar to my toddler’s implicit ones.

In what contexts is it appropriate to speak up?

What reactions do my words provoke?

What power do they wield?

My ultimate goal isn’t checking off the to-dos but nurturing a woman of character who will wield her own words well. And how I respond to her today models who she might become tomorrow. 

I can get down on her level, look into her eyes, and hear her out.

I can ask questions, validate her feelings, and propose a solution—or better yet, help her find a solution—that accomplishes both our goals.

I can see her, acknowledge her, hear her, understand her. She matters to me so her words matter to me.

I can learn to speak up with respect for her individuality and she can learn to speak up with confidence that she has a listening ear. Together we can encourage an environment that welcomes dialogue and demonstrates dignity for our fellow human beings. 

My two-year-old has a lot to say these days. She’s living out loud, with a strong emphasis on loud.

I want to keep making space for her to try on her voice for size.

I want her to keep expressing and experimenting.

I want her to build confidence in her capacity to communicate.

And how I respond to her today affirms her value eventually as a woman who merits respectful attention. 

Some days it’s hard to imagine that woman, especially when she’s got a death grip on grandma’s dog and a penchant for flinging undergarments hither and yon. But the seed is there, the germinating child and future adult inherent in the toddler. Will my words help her bloom?

And some days I’m reminded that, while I tend to take the weighty, long-sighted view, not every word my toddler utters need unleash a torrent of philosophizing. Sometimes it’s best to take words at their face value.

  • “What?” she asked when I said what we needed at the store.
  • “What?” she asked when I said where she left her water bottle.
  • “What?” she asked when I said why we were visiting friends.

This week she’s asking a different question.

And so am I: Where did I put that otoscope?

I think it’s time to check for earwax.


Erin Brindley, a full-time mom and full-time church administrator in Dallas, Texas, is one half of the dynamic duo behind Preparing to Parent, where she and her identical twin, Stacy, are “growing families with purpose…on purpose.” This passionate sister pair loves caring for the tender and vulnerable bodies, minds, and souls of new beings and new moms and wielding words with impact on their holistic health blog—oh, and occasionally absconding to the mountains, where the silence is loud for listening. Join their family for free recipes and more reflections on life.

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