Can We Heal Our Country by Listening to Babies and Parents?

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.


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A Listening Curriculum: School Radically Re-imagined in the Time of COVID-19

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.”

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Autism and the Search for Certainty

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.

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COVID-19 and Separation of Immigrant Families

Immigrant families currently face a disturbing variation of the horrific separation of parents and children imposed officially from April through June of 2018 but continuing through the fall of 2019 under the government’s “zero tolerance” policy. Now a federal judge has ruled that all migrant children must be released from detention centers because of coronavirus. But immigration officials are not expected to allow parents to leave with them. Anyone with a hand in such cruel and heartless policy should be required to view the classic still-face experiment. More powerfully than any words, it shows how a parent provides an infant’s ability to literally hold themselves together. Separations beyond their ability to tolerate them threaten their very sense of existence.

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Childcare at the Intersection of Prejudice and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fact that the health of our economy rests on the shoulders of our country’s childcare workers. The majority of the people tasked with caring for our nation’s youngest members are women of color and among the lowest paid and least valued members of our society. Children and their caregivers together bear the brunt of woefully inadequate and poorly thought out plans for reopening early education and care .

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Confronting Prejudice Against Children

Young-Breuhl, an analyst, political theorist and biographer, calls attention to the way human rights of children are threatened. Childism is defined as “a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs.”

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Helping Parents Make Room For Uncertainty

Many parents today are burdened by an expectation of perfection. When we can protect time to listen to parent and baby together, we convey the idea that, in contrast to a “right” way, they will figure things out together. Growth happens through repair of inevitable mistakes we make along the way.

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The Allure (and Danger) of Certainty: A Developmental View

Stress and adversity are ubiquitous. Adversity becomes “trauma” when it is compounded by a sense that one’s mind is alone. When children grow up in an environment characterized by lack of curiosity about their experience, where they do not feel listened to by their primary caregivers, epistemic mistrust, or hypervigilence, along with a sense of social isolation, develops. An individual then faces what Fonagy terms an “epistemic dilemma, “ characterized by cycling between hypervigilence and excessive credulity
For a person facing this dilemma, a leader who speaks with absolute certainty, leaving no doubt that he or she is the one to whom we should listen, has power to protect against the emotionally intolerable experience of being alone. In this state, feelings can override facts. This developmental model helps to make sense of our current political situation. In a democracy, when a large population feels fundamentally disconnected and unheard, filled with mistrust yet also vulnerable to emotionally driven messages, it makes all of us vulnerable.

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Mind-Altering Drugs and the Toddler

Behavior is a form of communication. Medication can silence that communication. Until we place a renewed value on protecting time for listening, we will continue to see an increase in this kind of prescribing. In effect we will be silencing the voices of the youngest members of our society.

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Parenting and Empathy: An Essential Partnership

Last week I had the privilege of reconnecting with Anna Ornstein, a brilliant child psychiatrist and one of my original mentors. In preparation for our meeting, I re-read a paper she had given me back in 2004* (written with her husband Paul Ornstein, MD about 20 years before that), when I was just beginning to develop the ideas now described in my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind. While I do not reference the paper in my book, it is filled with such wisdom that I felt compelled to quote large segments of it in this blog post. Interestingly, much of what she says is similar to what in the current world of developmental psychology is referred to as “reflective functioning, ” or what I refer to in my book as “holding a child’s mind in mind.” While in that language, empathy is included as one component of the more complex task of reflective functioning, in Dr. Ornstein’s language “empathy” encompasses the many components of reflective functioning

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