"We need to actively engage parents before we jump to invest in pre-K for all," Jack Shonkoff, director of The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, wisely proclaimed yesterday at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Symposium on Child Health, Resilience and Toxic Stress in Washington, DC. Promoting a "two generation approach," symposium speakers recognized that not only the child, but the parent-child relationship, is the concern of the pediatrician.
One of the speakers addressed the problem of "uncompensated time." This phrase hit the nail on the head. Time and space is the treatment. People need to feel safe to be able talk about what is important. This includes both the clinician and the parent. When the pediatrician feels stressed by a waiting room full of patients that the current system of care demands he must see, he is not able to be present with a parent in the way that careful listening requires.
It is like a set of Russian dolls. The society values the clinician's time, offering the opportunity to listen to the parent, who listens to the child. And as many at the symposium recognized, it is not just pediatricians, but also child care workers, teachers, home visitors and others who have the opportunity to support stressed parents. All policy needs to be focused on protecting space and time to listen. Listening is not high tech. But it is this space and time, where parents feel safe and valued, that we have the opportunity to grow healthy brains and minds.
Pediatrician and journalist Perri Klass gave a beautiful talk about Reach Out and Read, a national program that distributes books to parents in pediatrician's offices. She spoke honestly about the growing realization that benefits were not from larger vocabulary or "school readiness." Rather it was the act of reading, the gentle sound of the parent's voice, fully in the moment with the child, that was responsible for positive results.
One audience member asked a wise question about giving a book to a mother who has herself not been read to, and so does not have a model for this kind of intimate interaction. Klass responded that this is true of any advice or guidance we give to a parent. Her response leads back to the notion that rather than giving information, or teaching skills, first we need to listen, to be curious about the experience of the person we are with.
My first book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, whose second chapter is "Listening to Parents, Strengthening the Secure Base" translates the explosion of contemporary research that Shonkoff referred to in his presentation. The book shows what this approach looks like for a range of everyday parenting concerns from newborn to teenage years.
While the symposium was occurring, a relevant headline, A Case Study in Maternal Mental Illness, on New York Times front page, told the tragic story of a mother's struggles with her belief that she had caused her baby harm. This conviction eventually led to her jump from a building with her infant strapped to her chest. While one cannot fully understand the treatment she received by reading a newspaper article, it appears that there were multiple interventions along the way, all of which treated the mother and baby separately. Many pediatricians reassured the mother that there was "nothing wrong." Psychiatrists diagnosed depression and prescribed medication.
Knowing the research on the value of treating parent and child together, I can't help but wonder if time with an experienced clinician who could sit on the floor with both parent and baby, might have offered the opportunity to make sense of her suffering and so set the pair on a different path. In the abundance of advice, reassurance and diagnosing of illness, was there time and space for listening?
For when parents, who may be stressed and overwhelmed, feel heard, recognized and understood, they are better able to do the same for their child. When parents listen to their child, are fully present with their child, they offer the opportunity build resilience and the capacity to manage adversity. It is not about giving information, or even about teaching skills. It is about supporting parents' efforts to connect with their most competent self.
Central to this view is the notion of the good-enough mother, a phrase coined by pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and demonstrated in the contemporary research of developmental psychologist Ed Tronick. The good-enough mother is not perfect. But it is her very imperfection that drives development forward in a healthy way. Parents make mistakes. It is through these mistakes, and their subsequent recognition and repair, that children learn to manage the inevitable challenges of life.
It was an inspiring symposium, but we may be making this more complicated than it needs to be. All the best science tells us that our single aim should be to protect time and space for listening to parents, and so to children. This is the road to health and resilience.