Parenting the Parents: On Being a Sounding Board

free-vector-man-and-woman-icon-clip-art_116853_Man_And_Woman_Icon_clip_art_hightAugust 1979, thirty-five years ago this month, was the first time I felt I was more of an adult than my parents. After my husband and I graduated from law school and took the bar exam, he had to go on his two weeks’ annual training with the Naval Reserves, and I went to visit my parents.

My parents were typically rational people, and they’d known each other since high school. I thought they didn’t have any secrets from each other. (I’d only been married twenty-one months at the time—I hadn’t yet realized that a few little secrets are good for a marriage.)

During my trip to see my parents that summer, I learned that each of them had a secret they were keeping from the other. A big secret. And they each told their secrets to me.

My mother needed a hysterectomy, but she said, “don’t tell your father.” The surgery would require several weeks of recuperation, and my mother was my younger siblings’ chief chauffeur, as well as doing everything needed to keep the family’s home running smoothly.

My father was considering taking a new job across the state, but he said, “don’t tell your mother.” Any move from the house my parents had occupied for seventeen years would obviously impact the entire family.

In the wisdom of my twenty-three years of age and newlywed status, I knew these were secrets my parents needed to share. “Don’t you think you need to talk?” I told them both, in separate conversations.

Well, my parents did talk not long after I left to return to my home. My mother had the surgery and recovered just fine. My father took the new job, and the family worked out the transition to new home and schools.

And I learned that even responsible adults sometimes need a sounding board.

In the intervening years, I have encountered many more occasions when people I relied on have needed my attention and concern. My mother, as she declined with Alzheimer’s in her last few years. My father as he cared for her and now faces her estate issues. My husband as he dealt with his own disappointments in life. Bosses, who may have wanted to seem omnipotent, but needed to bounce ideas off someone they trusted before making information public.

The trick to being a good sounding board, I discovered, is to listen. I’m told I interrupt my family members too often. But I hope when it counts, I can listen.

I hope also that I can let others come to their own realization of the appropriate next steps. Sometimes they can use a nudge. But most people appreciate the opportunity to develop their next steps in their own time.

I can’t say my husband and I have always been completely open with each other in our thirty-seven years of marriage. We’re both introverted and like to think things through on our own. But I have always remembered those conversations with my parents in August 1979, and tried to be sure I didn’t keep big secrets from my husband.

And he’s usually a pretty good sounding board for me.

When have you served as a sounding board for others? When have you needed a sounding board yourself?

Posted in Family, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , .


  1. I’ve needed multiple sounding boards through my adult life and very grateful they were available to me. I, like you, tend to interrupt people – a trait that my husband has almost cured me of. Active listening goes a long way towards having the most appropriate response to another person’s situation. Without ALL the facts, advice given can’t possibly be entirely helpful or adequate. Thank you for a very well-written article Theresa. I enjoyed it very much.

    • Irene, thank you!
      You are absolutely right that it’s important to get all the facts . . . and all the emotions. I had a very wise boss tell me once, “I’ve never been able to figure out how to have an hour-long conversation with someone in less than an hour.” Meaning that it takes people time to get their story out, and the listener has to let it happen.

  2. Theresa there is a definite talent in the listening skill and it has taken me years to understand some people don’t want answers, they just want a sounding board, so they can solve it themselves. Beautiful post. Kath

    • Kath, thanks for the comment.
      You’re right that just listening is important. I tend to want to “fix” things, but so often problems aren’t fixable, they just need to be shared and understood. Your comment was a good reminder.

  3. Wow. Those were huge decisions! I’m glad your parents finally talked to each other.

    It’s nice to have a sounding board. I’ve found that people want to talk more than they want to listen, especially if they’re naturally fixers.

    • Thanks for the comment. A lot of poeple do want to talk more than listen, and they’d also rather fix than listen. But a lot of introverts don’t want to do either — they want to go off in a corner and think about the problem, until they’re ready to do something about it.

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