We at Hand in Hand are working to introduce parents everywhere to one very simple new idea that changes the work of parenting. The heart of this idea is that children’s feelings play a deeply useful role in their lives.
Children’s feelings arise when they haven’t yet been able to fully comprehend a challenging experience. As they cry, laugh hard, or tantrum, they are working hard to gain mastery over an experience that overwhelmed their ability to understand their world. This means that children all need to cry, tantrum, and laugh often, because life is frequently overwhelming for them. They actually set up opportunities to open up big feelings about very small things, so that they can shed these feelings and improve their confidence in themselves and their world.
The idea that children’s feelings have importance is, in the evolution of thinking about children, a very new idea. It’s an idea that doesn’t fit well with the customs we’ve inherited that have to do with raising and disciplining children. But once a parent has managed to fully listen to the deep feelings of his child, and has seen generosity of spirit that a good cry or a good tantrum releases in him, a whole new way of parenting unfolds.
The Parenting by Connection approach allows the parent to move from an adversarial role to the role of partner when a child’s behavior flares. Listening to a child’s crying, or helping a child have an extended playtime with laughter, gives a parent a way to rebuild the closeness that his child needs.
At Hand in Hand, we’re talking to parents of a variety of backgrounds about partnering with their children to build, or rebuild, the close connection that makes parenting a joy, and helps children and parents to function at their best.
Here are three stories from parents about times they have partnered with their children to solve problems. In each of these stories, the parent provided a relaxed but firm, sometimes playful direction for the child, and then listened to the child’s feelings. In each case, the parent provided love, limits where necessary, and an offer of connection.
The child did the work of unloading the big feelings that stole his sense that all is well in his world. And when the child’s feelings subsided, the parent and child were both pleased. The parent didn’t have to be harsh. The child wasn’t shamed, blamed, or punished. No harmful behavior toward others was allowed, but the parents didn’t have to adopt a harsh or critical posture.
The parent listened, cared and, playfully or seriously, set a reasonable direction. The child allowed his upset to show fully, felt things very strongly, or played hard, and finally recovered his ability to think flexibly.
Here’s one father’s story of partnering with his son to overcome shyness:
I wanted to share with you a success I had recently in Staylistening with my son, who is five years old. He and I were invited to a birthday celebration for one of his friends. The party was held in a local park and when we arrived, we found that there was a relatively large number of young people and adults. His friend’s mother had invited the whole kindergarten class to the party and had also arranged for some people to conduct organized games for the children. My son only knew his friend and his friend’s parents.
We got out of the car and headed over to the large group, where games had already begun. As we got closer my son clung fiercely to my arms. I suggested that he join the other children for play but he refused to go near them and told me that he didn’t want to play. I could see that he was scared and felt intimidated by all these people that he didn’t know. He found it very hard to make contact with either adults or young people, even when they came up to say hello.
Instead of getting annoyed with him I drew him off a bit and sat down with him. I held him close and gently but firmly indicated that I thought he should play with the others. He cried and said that he didn’t want to play. He wanted to stay with me. He complained that he was tired and hung on tight to me. I kept telling him that I thought it was fine, that nothing bad was happening and that I thought he could go and play. He kept crying.
After only a short while we moved a bit closer to the group. I made sure that he could see the children and I kept telling him that everything was all right. I told him that we were not going to go home but that we would stay. He cried for a short time longer.
I then suggested we go get involved in the next game that was being arranged. I stood with him and helped explain how the game worked and what he had to do. When it was his turn he kicked the ball successfully and then he was off with a big smile and carefree attitude.
In just twenty minutes he went from being terrified and wanting to hide away to being fully involved and engaged in the play with the others. He was making full eye contact with the adults he hadn’t even met before and had a great time. He was very playful and excited to be there with me, too, and wanted to play with me as well as the others. We had a great time!
I felt so proud of him and pleased with me that we could get through this bit of difficulty so elegantly.
—a father in Crawley, Western Australia
This father partnered with his son. He saw that his son was afraid. He knew that there was no harm that would come to him in the situation so he took the time to connect. He offered his son a gentle but firm direction that all was well, and that play with new people was possible. Then he stayed close while his son talked about and worked through his feelings to the contrary. The result was a hopeful experience for both of them.
Here’s a story of a mother who has shared Parenting by Connection with her friend. This friend then partnered with her daughter to help with the feelings around separation:
A friend offered to watch my twenty-month-old daughter for me while I took a three-week class. It was for about two hours each time. My daughter has big cries when I leave her. This friend knows how to listen to children, so I knew my daughter would be safe with her.
The first week, I told my daughter I was leaving, and she didn’t cry before I left. But when I was out of sight and gone, she cried with my friend for half an hour before she played.
The second week, she cried for about two and a half hours! My friend said that there were breaks in the crying, but most of the time, she was being held by my friend and was crying about me being gone. When I got back, she fell into my arms, exhausted. I think my daughter felt safer that second time, so she cried much longer.
The third time, we were more prepared. She was upset when I left. She cried at the beginning, but when I got back, she was jabbering away, telling me all the things she did, and she didn’t lunge for me or run for me. She had had a big hard short cry, and then had relaxed and played the rest of the time.
After this, her language took a big spurt! Before, she was whining when she wanted something. Now, she was talking, stating clearly what she wanted, and feeling much more in charge.
Later, I took her to a neighbor’s house for an hour. She said, “Be back. Bye bye! Mama be back.” And she played without a worry. So I know she’s understanding the whole situation better.
—a mother in San Anselmo, California
The family friend knew that a child who is crying is a child doing important work to build confidence. Unloading the feelings relieves a child of worries. It frees up the intelligence the child was using to manage those worries, so that there’s energy for play and learning and adventure. That friend built the child’s confidence by having confidence in the child. She assumed that the child would use her love and attention to cry until the hurt was gone, and would be healthier and happier because of that time spent together.
Here’s how another parent used Playlistening to partner with a child so that his upsets wouldn’t govern a weekend that had been planned to give him a break from a difficult situation:
My friend Maria, her grandson, my daughter and I went on a ski weekend together. My daughter is almost nine, and Maria’s grandson is twelve. He has an extremely hard life. We cooked up this weekend so we could have fun together, and could try to give him some connection with us away from the difficulties of his family.
He took some ski lessons on the first day, and learned amazingly quickly. He was fearless on skis. It was a bit of a problem, actually. He wanted to go down hills that had moguls, although he was still new at skiing, and he kept trying to lean out dangerously from the ski lifts when we were high in the air.
We all had a full first day and a really rousing card game that night, in which the kids won and we adults lost miserably in the midst of lots and lots of laughter. It was really fun.
The next morning, he said that he was going to go down the runs that had moguls. Maria said, “No, you’re going to go down slopes that you can handle, so you don’t hurt yourself.” That was too much for him. He hung his head, went over to the bed, and curled up silently in fetal position.
Maria and I thought for a moment, “What shall we do?” My daughter went over to him and asked him something like, “How come you went back to bed? Are you sick or something?” but he wouldn’t say a word. He had dug deep into bad feelings.
Then, I said, “Let’s go pull him out!” Maria said, “Really?!” and I said, “Sure!” and went over and grabbed one of his ankles and began to drag him across the bed. He began to kick and struggle, but I kept it on the fun side. I kept dragging him and begging him to come with us. He pulled me back onto the bed, so I started throwing pillows at him, and he began to laugh and get into the pillow fight. At one point, Maria tried to hang onto him—that was too much, and he began to get upset. I thought, “No, we aren’t going to be able to handle a big upset right now!“ so, I got her to let him go, and we kept on pillow fighting and wrestling for a long time—ten or fifteen minutes.
It was really fun, with lots of laughter and good tussling. The kids were winning, of course, but we grownups were almost holding our own. When I was finally getting tired, I yelled, “OK, who wants to go SKIING?!” and he and my daughter jumped up, put their fists in the air in a victory V, and said, “We do!” and they hopped into their jackets and boots, did everything they needed to do quickly and cooperatively, and we went off to have another great day.
—a mom in Emeryville, California
It takes a shift in perspective to be able to partner with a child to offload feelings. It takes a strong faith that the child knows exactly what he or she is doing when an upset arises. And it takes time and flexibility on the part of the grownup.
The payoff is great. There’s nothing like the feeling of knowing that you’ve just helped a child in a unique and lasting way. There’s nothing as satisfying as partnering with a child to heal a hurt or lift a feeling of helplessness. There’s nothing like the sense of closeness and hope that comes from banishing bad feelings, not by forcing them into hiding, but by listening to them until their power has dissolved.
The Parenting by Connection Listening Tools are simple, unique approaches to partnering with your child. Try them, and send us your story at email@example.com