“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” -Mary Oliver
For awhile now, the idea of the power of presence has been visited and revisited in my thinking about work with young children. Last year, during our professional development course led by Karen Baker at Allen Creek, we studied play, and I learned about the concept of “watched play.” It was a familiar concept to me as a parent and a teacher of young children, because it is something that children clearly crave and need, but what I learned from the seminar is why it is valuable to children. There seems to be a common urge for adults to encourage independence in children, and unfortunately, this can get in the way of the need that children have for adults to simply be attentive. We adults can get distracted by so many things: our phones, our own needs, the needs of other children, making plans, the drive to train our children to become achievers. I hope to make a case for the power of just being there, and paying attention.
On a blog post about the gift of presence, Parker Palmer reminds us that “the human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.” I believe this sums up a child’s most basic desire: to be seen just as s/he is. As their caregivers, we can do that. Yes, there are ways that we will need to guide them, and there are boundaries they will need help with. But, we can also just be there to attend to their being and notice what they are doing and how they are doing it. Noticing who they are is a gift we can give them. Presence in this sense is more about being than doing. It is about bearing witness to who they are, about helping to carry the burden and delight of emotions, about validating and affirming. It allows for a connection between the child and attending adult that has a sort of silent power. This power gives the child the message that someone is thinking about him or her, it helps them to develop self-regulation, helps with mentalization. From the child’s perspective, this experience is interactive, even if the adult feels s/he is not “doing anything.”
Watched play can be awkward for some adults. It can feel unproductive, especially to those who tend to be driven by achievement. Some parents or teachers want to have things they can do or say to feel like they are being an active participant in the child’s development. It may be helpful to have some phrases that encourage the connection of attentiveness. In my experience, I find it helpful to make observations about what the child is doing, saying, or feeling. Simply stating it assures him or her of the adult’s presence and attentiveness. Beginning with “I notice . . . “ can be a useful way to get started. I also find the practice of saying, “thank you” to the child to be helpful. “Thank you for showing me . . . “ “Thank you for telling me that.” “Thank you for waiting,” etc.
Dr. Susan Sherkow studied the concept of “watched play,” and describes it as “a state of mutual engagement from the child’s perspective, and therefore interactive.” She found that simply the presence of an attentive adult can validate a child’s identity, and eventually help to improve their capacity to be alone. The experience for the child allows him or her to regulate their emotions and their impulses confidently. It allows the child to begin to differentiate between self and other, and to learn how to interpret and respond to others’ behaviors. In the process, the child internalizes these learned skills, which makes their eventual independence more possible.
The power that presence has on a child’s development is not just related to their play experience. Children need this presence from the adults around them when they are experiencing big emotions, too. Hand in Hand parenting teaches a concept called Staylistening. This is a method of just being with a child while s/he experiences big emotions. Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand parentings describes the need for Staylistening here:
We are so accustomed to seeing the world only from our own vantage point. If we don’t feel sad, no one else should, either. But children’s feelings are like their own personal weather system, which is affected by forces often unseen by you.
To tell your child he should feel happy when he is sad is roughly as effective as telling a rainstorm to go away. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel so sad” or “I’ll stay right here with you while it’s hard” give your child permission to address and work through bad feelings. Phrases like “It’s only a torn paper. Quit acting like such a baby!” only shame a child. They work against your goal of helping your child rebuild his sense of well-being.
As you listen, you are not necessarily condoning your child’s feelings, nor are you spoiling him. You are helping him recover. Children cry only when they are too upset to think. Feelings of upset can overpower a child and drive him to do things that don’t make sense. As you listen, you drain the power these feelings have over your child. His own good judgment will return once you’ve listened thoroughly.
The chaotic life of a parent of young children and the atmosphere of a classroom with 10-15 young children can make it seem impossible to carve out time and space to create this kind of attentiveness. However, it can be as simple as a shift in perspective about what the child needs, and about the value of what we have to give them: our presence and our attention. It doesn’t have to take long. It just requires intention.