Listening, leveling and the demands of dignity

I love reading bedtime stories to my kids. Spending time sharing great children’s books (okay, and sometimes pretty mediocre ones that they somehow also love) is a fun way to see the world anew through their questions and commentary. Among the many wonderful children’s books, one of my favorites is The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. Even if you don’t have young children, I recommend a listen.

The basic premise is this: Taylor is building a magnificent block tower when “out of nowhere, things come crashing down.” Following the tower’s untimely collapse, Taylor is besieged by a parade of animals who suggest ways to cope with this heartfelt disappointment. But the only animal that succeeds in supporting Taylor is the title character—the rabbit. Rather than suggesting something to do, the rabbit simply listens.

As a parent and a psychologist, I find this framing an instructive reminder that knowing our children isn’t about directing their internal experiences; it is about listening to them. Plenty of literature suggests that parental sensitivity—that is, parents’ ability to notice and respond appropriately to children’s “communicated” needs—promotes individual and familial health. A study by Braungart-Rieker and colleagues, for example, found that mothers’ sensitivity was positively related to infants’ ability to modulate their emotions at 4 months of age, which in turn was associated with a more emotionally secure and healthy mother-child relationship when children were one year old.

But it’s hard to be sensitive sometimes. Parental stress and depression have been shown to interfere with parents’ capacity to respond sensitively to their children. Getting caught up in the normal stress and strain of our daily lives makes it harder to notice others’ needs. Yet sensitive parenting is crucially important to children’s sense of security; the power of trustworthy and protective relationships facilitates children’s ability to cope with exposure to other forms of adversity.

One family-based intervention for children, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), supports parents dedicated to “keying in” on their children’s needs and experiences through the use of child-led free play—a special time where parents minimize question-asking and command-giving, and instead follow their children’s lead by noticing and imitating the physical and verbal elements of their play, using particular techniques to elicit and scaffold conversation. For most parents this feels unnatural at first, but it is amazing to see how parent-child play is transformed within this framework, and how much children love playing with their parents in this way. Importantly, this isn’t to the neglect or abandonment of parental direction or command-giving at other times—the premise is that building positive, relational space is a pre-condition for the effectiveness of other, necessary parenting strategies (“No! Don’t write on the wall!”).

Listening for dignity

From the perspective of integral human development, we can understand the time, attention and care parents can give in such play spaces as an opportunity to understand children’s dignity needs. And in fact, what we find is that when we listen, people, including children, have a lot to say about what they need. And it may not be what we had planned to “give” at first blush, even if we think we’re being helpful.

This past weekend, for example, in our frantic scramble for shoes to get everyone out the door, my daughter ended up with one sandal and one tennis shoe. Thinking she couldn’t find the “proper” pair, I offered the second tennis shoe. Not interested. Why? She had intentionally selected one of each shoe to match the pink-blue combination of her mismatching socks. My proffered tennis shoe was superfluous and undesired. It never would have occurred to me that two different shoes would be the desired outcome. But okay. I tossed the partners of each pair into the trunk so that we’d have them when they were needed.

What if we only solve what we see as the need, rather than what the need actually is?

But parenting sensitivity isn’t a once-and-done task. We can’t learn how to be sensitive parents and then “voilà!”, we are. Children’s needs are individually mediated, context-specific and evolve over time. Being a sensitive parent to a 1-year old is very different from being a sensitive parent to an 8-year old, a 15-year old, a 30-year old. And being a sensitive parent to one child is different from being a sensitive parent to another child. There is a shared skill set, sure, but one of the cross-cutting features of the skill of sensitivity is adaptiveness. Through listening, we constantly learn and relearn what our children’s needs are. It’s humbling, challenging, interesting, and full of both joy and failure. It requires us to take a moment, slow down, and get to know the inner workings of a mind not our own.

The leveling effect

As academicians, practitioners, and policymakers, we are trained in particular methods of data analysis and particular sets of “solutions” to social problems. But what if the problems we’re trying to solve only solve what we see as the need, rather than what the need actually is? Do we get too absorbed in the “business” of offering tools from top-down perspectives which, like the animals’ offerings to Taylor, are untimely, irrelevant, or undesired?

Just as listening is a key part of understanding the dignity needs of our closest family members, so too is listening a key component of understanding the dignity needs of our communities. In preparing to listen, we must be diligent in being good partners in building the relational space that serves as the precondition for trusting, healthy community relationships. Unlike parenting, which is unavoidably imbued with at least some exercise of authoritative power, deep listening in community contexts undermines social hierarchies and the unthinking privileging of some voices and needs over others. This type of attentive listening is an iterative, reflexive process that fosters openness of mind to data and experiences that are not our own, seeking to develop egalitarian partnerships that interrogate the structures undergirding inequality.

Listening is inherently multidisciplinary and multimodal, and data collection efforts that meaningfully integrate quantitative and qualitative forms of listening can provide unique insights. Take, for example, work by anthropologist Panter-Brick and colleagues on mental health and resilience in Afghani youth. A large-scale survey gave insight into the nature and scope of trauma and mental health difficulties, highlighting areas of potential need for families. But qualitative work emphasized that the roots of these difficulties were largely structural. Employing these methods in concert provides important information about the scope of the problem—which the “big” data helps with—as well as the experience of the problem, which the in-depth interviews reveal. Integrating diverse forms of knowing opens us up to developing a more robust and theory-rich evidence-basis for moving forward.

Moving from listening to action

Assuming the presence of a relational space for listening and information gathering, how then do we move to action to promote human flourishing? Here, a useful framework is contemporary theoretical work on resilience, which understands resilience not as individuals’ ability to “bounce back” after adversity, but rather as an inherently multisystemic process in which individuals interact with other systems to access resources that facilitate positive development. In this model, the co-creation of resilience across systems is in large part a function not just of the resources available, but of the relevance of those resources—developmentally, contextually, and culturally. In short, do the resources respond to the actual problem at hand? This places the onus of responsibility on systems to ensure not only resource provision but resource matching and accessibility as first steps to resource effectiveness. This is no easy feat, because it means that we should expect a shifting landscape of needs. Thus, even the most robust evidence bases need to be iteratively updated, challenged, and reconsidered with regularity. This is hard work, and is made both more challenging and more perfect by many hands.

A precarious balance

Work in human dignity is both fast and slow. That is, the problem is now, but listening takes time, and to rush to a solution risks advancing only the priorities of those who have the most bandwidth to do so. As someone doing research on the development and evaluation of psychological supports for children and families exposed to violence, I encounter this tension often. How do we develop a robust evidence basis for services that are needed imminently? This poses a critical ethical conundrum. To scale a service without a strong evidence basis risks delivering a quality of services to vulnerable populations that would never be acceptable in well-resourced contexts. But taking the time, when needs are imminent, to slow down and generate evidence is also challenging.

Perhaps the answer lies not in resolving the tension, but in holding this tension and setting it against the backdrop of the broader context of human dignity. A commitment to upholding dignity can serve as a guiding and centralizing force for both process and outcome. In the context of assaults on dignity, we must act quickly and on the best possible information—information that is gained through multimodal listening that brings in diverse voices. But we must also embody a spirit of intellectual humility, recognizing that despite our best efforts, policies and programs will be imperfect or may have unintended consequences. To enliven our work to respond to this reality, we also have to patiently develop the cross-cutting systems by which we gain critical and continuous feedback and find ways of integrating that feedback to produce meaningful change.

And when we tune in to the dignity of each person, we set the stage for new and innovative approaches that—as in the case of a child mourning a collapsed block tower—give us hope to “build again.”


Laura Miller-Graff is associate professor of psychology and peace studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development. 



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