Responsiveness is that quality of an adult-child relationship where the initiative is openly transferred to the child. The adult intentionally, and sometimes determinedly, follows the child’s actions and words.
Responsiveness is not trying to run the show, not trying to give any direction or suggestion, and not asking most kinds of questions. Instead, the adult drops her or his own agenda to follow the child’s.
To be responsive is to play a secondary role to the child’s interests for the current moment. One stifles one’s own impulses to ask, show, or direct. One tries to read inside the child’s head, to imagine the child’s thoughts and intentions, and to look for ways to enable the child’s expression. The idea is not to crack open that child, but to be prepared to be surprised.
Usually I am busy inside my head with something obviously important to say at any given moment, and I have to stop. Put down my suitcase. Settle in. Listen. I’m in for a treat. Time to be responsive to this child right now. To help myself stop, I do brain work. I imagine myself becoming weightless. I feel my feet inside my shoes and my shoes lifting from the ground. I picture drifting lightly, as light as a dandelion seed. The breeze of the child’s world brings adventure. Let’s see how long I can stay afloat this time — maybe a new record, if I am very, very light.
Adventure begins with what the child is doing or saying — the child’s topic. If the child doesn’t verbally raise the topic, we have to look for it in the child’s actions. Whatever the child is doing or even looking at, provides us something to respond to.
Responding to Actions
Here are four ways to follow responsively when the child does something you want to support with your attention and interest. I can illustrate them with this image of a child and her shoes.
When you replicate the child’s actions, you are responsive. Being a copy cat can be a quick fun way to communicate you are attuned directly to them.
Sit down beside her on the welcome mat and retie your own shoes.
You can objectively describe what a child is currently attending to. By following the child’s vision you can determine what she is focused upon and describe what she sees. This says you notice what the child is noticing and you are present. This is often the best way to connect.
You’ve got one shoe to go.
You can act like a sportscaster delivering play-by-play announcements of what the child is doing as she does it. These statements often begin with “you…” Always about actions as they occur.
You’re getting them snug.
Role-play talk is a game. When you talk in a different voice and establish pretend, all the normal communication rules are forgotten. You can be bossy, teachy, and ask all the questions you want.
Hey shoe! I’m talkin’ to you, Mr. Shoe.
What are you doing? You’ve got a tongue, speak up.
Don’t stick your tongue out at me!
Responding to Talking
She says, “These are the only shoes I could wear today.”
Restate the child’s underlying message, confirming you understand what she means, but use totally different words. To mimic what the child says exactly is not cool: “Oh, those are the only ones you could wear, huh?” I call that parroting. It is irritating and condescending. A paraphrase, on the other hand, says the child’s thought another way in your own words from your own perspective. Often paraphrases end with a raised inflection implying that you are checking for accuracy, but not needing more than being corrected if mistaken.
No choice, huh?
Parallel Personal Comment
When a child says something to you, reply with something from your own experience or your current feelings that exactly corresponds to that same thing in your own life. It must match the topic exactly. You live in a parallel universe in which you experienced an event that possibly corresponds to the child’s. You begin these with, “I…” and keep what you say very short. It’s not your turn to talk: it’s your turn to listen.
I only have one pair of shoes I can run in.
Leading Query on the Child’s Topic
Only one narrowly defined question is responsive: a question that’s an inquiry into something you don’t know and follows the child’s topic exactly. If you shift the topic even a tiny bit, you’re no longer responsive. This, I think, is the hardest kind of response to invent quickly, even though it looks easy. The best guide I can offer is the one of journalism: ask who, what, where, when, why, and how.
What happened to your other ones?
In the example of Liala below, all of this teacher’s talk is responsive, with the single exception of the last statement. This teacher is one of the people I first encountered who had lovely relationships with children, the kind of relationships I aspired to. I videotaped her to see what she did.
Can you identify the responsive technique for each of her statements?
imitation — description — narration — pretend dialog
paraphrase — parallel personal comment — leading query on other’s topic
Laila, four years old, walks into school wearing what appears to be a new dress. She obviously is taking pride in it by the look on her face and the way she makes the dress move. That’s a clear message.
- Teacher: I really like your pretty dress, Liala.
- Laila: It’s kinda new.
- Teacher: Oh, you haven’t had it long?
- Laila: (shakes her head no) I have only worn it two times.
- Teacher: When was the last time you wore it?
- Laila: To my friend’s house. She has one like it, except it’s blue.
- Teacher: Yours is a lovely red.
- Laila: I have a red hat!
- Teacher: Hah! You know what? So do I.
- Laila: Where is it?
- Teacher: It’s at home. I wear it when I ski in the snow.
- Laila: I’ve never done that before.
- Teacher: What have you done in the snow, Liala?
- Laila: I made some snowballs before and a snowman.
- Teacher: I really like making snowmen.
- Laila: My daddy helped me with mine.
- Teacher: It’s fun to do those things in the snow, isn’t it?
- Laila: I couldn’t do it all by myself. It wouldn’t work.
- Teacher: What part wouldn’t work for you?
- Laila: Putting the snow together.
- Teacher. Oh no! It kept falling apart, huh?
- Laila: Yeah.
- Teacher: Do you like wintertime or summertime the best? (topic change)
Number 12 is simply answering a question, which is responsive, also, even though it is not on the list. Number 17 is more than a restatement of the message, because it goes deeper; I would call it an empathic reflection. Maybe I should add two additional ways to be responsive. Answering Questions. Empathetic Reflection.
The Responding Convention
The three ways of responding to what a child says have a natural sequence from light to heavy.
- You can imagine this shoe-tying girl hearing the paraphrase: almost nothing is changed in one’s head by a paraphrase. Whatever she was thinking can continue it’s track. She knows that the listener has heard her throw and caught the ball. The listener is present is present to her, so the story can continue unfolding. A paraphrase makes connection without alteration.
- You can imagine her hearing the parallel personal comment. Without changing the thoughts she has about her topic, she momentarily hears about something similar in the listener’s life, something to consider as she conveys her thoughts. Immediately she has sort of a drone camera view, looking at herself and her listener from a bit wider perspective, noticeably affirmed.
- Finally, you can imagine her hearing the leading query on her topic. With almost all of her thoughts and experience on this topic remaining unexpressed, she is now forced to address this bit. It’s still responsive, but its also demanding. She isn’t as free as before: she has an agenda item. The danger is that she might not be thinking about the bit she is questioned about and it takes her out of her flow. In the example of the girl tying her shoes, the leading query on her topic (What happened to your other ones?) may be far from what she wanted to say. She may have been thinking about preparing for the day ahead and how her sandals, flats, and Mary Jane’s wouldn’t cut it. Because of the danger of pushing the wrong thing, it is not a good choice for the first response one tries. If I started with the leading query, I might miss all of the juicy amazing things she was about to say before I interfered.
Using the three in sequence, 1, 2, 3, consitutes a Responding Convention, a way to practice responding to maximize the open space for the child to continue. I use this convention any time I face situations where I have to work at getting a conversation flowing. I first paraphrase and wait for the child to say something more. If that fails, I try saying something about myself that exactly matches. If that fails, I push with the query adhering as closely as I can to the child’s topic. Sometimes pushing is necessary to get the ball rolling. The convention seems to work in all the transcripts I have seen. I think it is especially effective when one is developing a new relationship with a child.
One minor correction to the convention. It’s best to avoid starting with #1, the paraphrase, if the child’s topic is something rather mundane or obvious. A paraphrase in that case would be also mundane or obvious. Sometimes what a child says is already a complete thought, fully expressed, not needing development. For example,
1. paraphrase: Ready to eat, huh?
2. parallel personal comment: Me, too.
If you have been working on Enterprise Talk, this should make sense. In regular life, subjective talk (sharing what you think, feel, or have experienced) is the way to relate almost all of the time. A parallel personal comment is one kind of subjective statement, one that follows a child’s initiation on the child’s topic. I am addressing here the one-to-one conversation time, working on A Mutually Enriching Conversation, a special context. If you have an open, established, conversational relationship with a child, you can usually respond with your parallel personal. However, if the topic is fresh or unusual, the paraphrase may be the safest place to start. You can look for the Responding Convention in the examples later and see how this works.
Until you do this kind of analysis on yourself, you cannot expect to be your most effective self when speaking to a child. I think many adults don’t expect a conversation with a child to be too meaningful for them, but when you offer warm responses, they will blow you away with what insights they have to share. — Kate Hover
I had never realized the impact of having a conversation that I didn’t fill with questioning the child. I had never realized that I was holding the power. Do children really have the option of not answering my question? Not really. I was searching for a better way to be with my children, and this gave me new tools beyond my fondest hopes. I have been able to let go of the frustrations I lived in every day. Now it is different because I spend time listening to what the children have to say. — Amy Glamser