In my recent book The Power of Discord co-authored with renowned research psychologist Ed Tronick we address the problem of technology over-use within the context of human relationships. If we understand the problem as a symptom, we see that simple admonitions to limit time and find good content are not sufficient. When we eliminate a symptom without recognizing its function, we fail to address the underlying problem. Over-reliance on technology and social media may be a symptom of a social and cultural movement away from the normal messiness of human relationships. If so, only immersion in relationships can provide the solution.
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We learn to listen by being listened to. Our ability to find our way into another person’s experience begins to develop in our earliest months of life when caregivers naturally respond to our wordless communication. Our ability to listen is enhanced in a setting of connection and communication. Alternatively, our ability to listen can atrophy in an environment that does not model or value listening. When we protect this time to listen to the baby's unique voice and support parents at this transformative and often disorganizing time, we set babies and families on a healthy path right from the start.
A wise colleague who works as a family recovery support specialist in a program for parents of young children identified a core contradiction. If we say that addiction is a biological disease that is treated with medication, how to we make sense of the narrative of the role of trauma? Could it be that the well-intentioned efforts to reduce stigma, in large part a response to the criminalization of drug abuse, has the unintended consequence of silencing stories that then reappear to exert their influence in other forms?
The meanings we make of ourselves in the world as hopeful and capable of empathy or, in contrast, as hopeless, fearful, and closed off evolve in countless moment-to-moment interactions. Social emotional learning, for all ages, is the only thing we need to preserve. I propose doing away with all academic curriculum for 6-12 months. All kids will “fall behind” at the same rate, releasing parents from the anxiety that seems to be driving a lot of decision-making.We can replace academic curriculum with what I would call a “listening curriculum.”
Dance offers a kind of parallel process to infant-parent interaction. As teachers and students together choreograph new dances, missteps inevitably occur on the journey to a coherent graceful performance. Each class offers participants the opportunity to build that hope and agency anew. Over ten years ago my own daughter’s countless hours of classes, rehearsal, and performance with the dance program played a central role in her development as she navigated the tumultuous middle school years. The experience became part of her core resilience now revealed in fortitude and flexibility as a doctor-in-training on the front lines of the pandemic.
The truth lies in our humanity, in the complex interplay between biology and environment. It lies in the stories we tell and the meaning we make of our experience. The search for the truth lies in protecting space and time to listen to those stories, in all their richness and complexity.