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A Time to Listen: A new approach to the inner life of children
An interview with Patty Wipfler by Harold Rosenthal

Patty Wipfler is the founding Director of the Parents Leadership Institute, a non-profit organization that applies the principles of parent-to-parent listening and parent-to-child listening to promote the well-being of both parent and child. Her work with this approach grew out of her own experience of how difficult it is to be a parent and of how listening skills, which she was introduced to through Co-Counseling, relieved the pressure of parenting and helped her become a more effective mother.

Patty has been teaching basic listening and leadership principles for the past 25 years; she leads ongoing parent-support groups and workshops, and publishes information on the subject, in both English and Spanish. She lives and works in California, and conducts workshops and gives lectures throughout the United Sates and in other countries.

See the Parents Leadership Institute site at www.parentleaders.org.


Seeds: Please tell us about the work of the Parents Leadership Institute.

Patty : We are trying to teach skills to parents that allow them to be true leaders of their families: able to communicate closely and to pull the family forward through their caring and the strength of the relationships they build among family members. The main skill we teach for this is listening. They learn to build a support system for themselves by exchanging listening time with another adult.
We also teach them how to listen to their children so that when the children hit difficulties they can’t resolve easily, the parents are able to help them release their negative emotions in a way that promotes their development. The emotional release process, which often involves crying or tantrums, offloads the debris of fears, separations and putdowns that block children’s ability to learn, to love other people and to use their time well. The listening is done to assist the child in the release process, not necessarily to modify or control behavior.

Seeds : Would you explain the process a little more?

Patty : Often parents feel manipulated by their child’s tears, but it’s important to allow a child to cry things through and to just be pleased with him when he’s in the middle of a tantrum, while of course making sure that he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else. The child is doing the smartest thing he can do at that moment. The problem is that the parent is just not able to see this and respond. Unfortunately, our society encourages us to build all kinds of intellectual skills, but not the skill to assist another in offloading emotions in a way that rebuilds the capacity to care and act intelligently.

Seeds : What do you mean by “just be pleased” with a child who is having a tantrum?

Patty : I’ll give you an example. We had a little girl in our daycare center who went through a period of great frustration just before she learned to talk. She would get so wound up that she would get down on her hands and knees and crawl around on the carpet, crying. When she did this, I just crawled along next to her, smiling and encouraging her, but not trying to stop her. It’s a little like coaching a woman in labor, you want to be there, cheering her on from the sidelines!

Seeds : Could you give an example of offloading?

Patty : One toddler, Kathryn, was inconsolable when she had to be separated from her usual caregiver, and cried for a good three hours one Friday afternoon. We got ourselves organized and handled her in shifts. Finally she did stop crying and played until her mother came. When the two returned on Monday, her mother was very excited, saying Kathryn had learned 20 words since Friday and had talked all weekend long! And that wasn’t all. Kathryn walked straight into the toddlers’ room, picked out the caregiver who had spent two hours with her while she cried, walked over and backed into her lap with a blissful smile that seemed to say, “Oh, I’m home.” Apparently she had cried enough to get herself over a certain mental hump, to clear her thinking and to realize that she was perfectly safe with us.

Seeds : Why does listening to children in this way help them?

Patty : As far as I can see, it’s analogous to the body’s ability to heal itself from a broken bone or virus or bruise. You often require a little help from another person who isn’t damaged, but that person is only an assistant. He can’t heal you. Your body heals itself.

Seeds : Could we talk about strategies you might use for handling inappropriate behavior, say being loud in a place where everyone should be quiet?

Patty : It’s important not to be hard on a child for the state he/she is in. If you want to move the situation forward, there are several things you can do. In your example, you can try to make eye contact with the child and say, “We can’t be really loud here. Can you tell me what you need?” The child will probably try to squirm away and may cry and get really mad before he can release the tension and respond to your request. If the situation allows, you might go along with the state the child is in for two or three minutes, trying to get some laughter and playfulness going, and then repeat your request.

Seeds : What about whining?

Patty : Whining is not useful, but it signals that a child is not feeling connected to herself or to you. So if you move in with the whining child and snuggle up with her a little bit or say, “I know you want a cookie so bad,” but in a light tone, making it clear that it’s not the cookie, but the child, that is important, you will help her either laugh or feel close enough that she will move over into a tantrum. It’s the offloading of bad feelings that will really help her feel connected again.

Seeds : What approach can you use with a child who has been stopped from hitting another child and then goes back and does it again?

Patty : The first thing to do when a child hits someone is to make sure that he doesn’t do it again. But it’s important not to act in anger. You just move in, putting your hand on the next block he picks up, and say, “I can’t let you throw that block.” There’s no point in getting mad or lecturing children when they are in this state, because they can’t understand a thing you say at that moment. They are overwhelmed by bad feelings and are not rational. We don’t get mad at people for breaking their legs. We just set the bone and let them heal themselves. The point is not to get the child to do what you think is right immediately, but to prevent him from harming himself or ruining his relationships with other people. You stop the damage and then you try to connect with the child. As you do that, the healing process kicks in and the child does what he needs to do to get back his capacity to reason. In order for a child to learn anything in that situation, he has to unload his feelings so that he can comprehend what has just happened.

Seeds: Sometimes, when you try to become close to the child in that irrational state, he becomes even more aggressive instead of moving to the stage of grief or crying. What is happening?

Patty: The child is checking to see if you are really going to keep paying attention. In general, such children are working on a big knot of heavy fear. For the person who is offloading a bad feeling, the present conditions need to be as different as possible from the underlying bad experience. For example, with a child who’s grieving over losing her mom, it’s really important to counterbalance her sense of aloneness with a gentle voice and physical contact.
Children who are gripped by terror have to battle really hard with the person who’s “listening.” You find yourself parrying the blows and harsh words of a child who is desperate to get away and desperate to not feel so bad, and who is trembling and sweating in the process. You need to let these children struggle but, at the same time, not let them hurt you. And you do have to keep telling them that you care about them and that you’re sorry that they feel so bad. Children who are antagonistic and destructive need to work on their terror. It’s very hard on parents and child-care workers to be the target of bad feeling, because we want to be seen as good and loving all the time. However, children have to say all the hurting things that they feel in order to dissolve them. If you give them the conditions they need, their personalities can change. You can pull them away from a future of juvenile delinquency and help them become affectionate people, able to learn and get along with others.

Seeds: The approach you have been describing requires a shift in behavior on the part of caregivers themselves and a lot more support for caregivers than is usually the case.

Patty: You’re right about caregivers’ behavior. Sometimes it’s hard for us to take children’s tears seriously because we were mistreated when we screamed or had tantrums as children and didn’t have the chance to stand up for ourselves in a safe way. Now when our children throw tantrums, we try to get rid of our bottled up discomfort as fast as we can. We try to stop the tears in some way, by giving the children candy, hitting them or sending them to their room. Instead, when our children want something they can’t have, we should put our arms around them and say, “no,” as though we were giving them a wonderful thing. We should stay with them while they grieve about the thing they are not getting, letting them release the bad feeling. In this way we don’t ignore their deep feelings and they don’t become dependent upon distractions to feel better. Most important, they free themselves to use their energy in a better way. The way children are treated in this culture is evolving. It’s better for a parent to ignore feelings than to inflict heavy physical punishment. If ignoring is the best you can do at a certain moment, then do it.
And what kind of support do caregivers receive now? At this point, our society provides very little support because it values only those jobs that make financial profit. We haven’t even imagined a world in which many adults would cooperate around the needs of one or two children. In order for parents to be in good enough shape to guide their children’s behavior, they need, I think, a minimum daily requirement (MDR) of being listened to themselves by another adult for half an hour to forty-five minutes. This “nutritional supplement” would give the parents a chance to offload their own emotions. I think that in another 20 years this will be common knowledge.

Seeds: How do you work with parents?

Patty: I let them know I understand how hard they try, how much they want for their children, and how good their children are. When a child is off base, one of the most effective things to say is that it’s good that he is struggling out in the open, because it means that he still hopes his parents will help him. Our society aspires to be middle class, that is, to have everything look smooth on the outside. Nobody says that it’s a good family in which things explode emotionally every single day or in which the two-and-a-half year old has a tantrum on the kitchen floor every night. When you say that, people feel relieved and they begin to ask questions. I like to teach in a group setting because parents get to hear somebody else’s questions and don’t feel that information is targeted at them because of some failing on their part.

Seeds: In a daycare center where you have a single teacher to perhaps eight preschoolers, how can you apply this approach when a child falls apart?

Patty: I wouldn’t recommend following it fully unless there is a rich ratio of grownups to children. At the daycare center, we never did extensive listening unless everybody was up to it. The caregivers’ ability to think and be present was of primary importance. However, if you don’t have the resources for the full approach, there are a number of things you can still do.
It’s good to be playful, giving the children the powerful role. You can play games like “Oh, please don’t leave me!” You pretend to chase them and they run away from you and then run back into your arms and laugh and laugh. This lets them work in a light way on being the one who leaves the poor person behind, the situation they are in every day. When they play this role of power, they can laugh at their separation fears. Another good thing to do is be affectionate. You can express real enjoyment in your voice as you watch them explore the bugs in the grass or go down the slide. Just noticing who children are and what they are doing makes a huge difference in the quality of their lives. Then once in a while, when somebody really needs a good cry, you may be able to give them that chance.
Knowing how much better a child’s life can be if you provide the outlet of crying makes it harder when you can’t pull it off because you don’t have enough grownups or because they don’t understand the process. You will burn out unless you yourself keep crying about how unfair it is that any little human being can’t use the capacity she has to offload bad feelings and get her thinking back on track just because there’s no grownup around who can help. We’d have a much more intelligent world if we could get this piece of learning over with in the first five years of a child’s life.

Seeds: One more question. A social worker once said to me that this approach seemed simplistic to her. How would you answer her?

Patty: The principles and insights here are dirt simple, but pulling them off isn’t. What is the source of the child’s distress and how are you going to move in in a way that will allow him to work on it? How can you show the people around that child how to do this? What works today may not work next week, or even tomorrow. People get hurt in a myriad of ways and those hurts cloud their intelligence. You have to find little things that work in these situations and piece together ways of responding.
I don’t buy into complicated theories about human beings. I think a simple theory will do. This simple theory is pretty handy and gives pretty good results, but making it work on a day-to-day basis is a great challenge.

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