Meet Patty Wipfler, a parenting expert who’s regularly featured sharing her insights in HelloJoey kits. She’s the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, a nonprofit international resource with a mission to help parents when the going gets tough by teaching an approach she calls Parenting by Connection. Hand in Hand has 135 instructors in 18 countries around the world, and Patty leads the charge – guiding and mentoring instructors, running the instructor training program, teaching a weekly parenting class, and much more. She’s also currently working with Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child on a research project to bring Hand in Hand’s tools to early childhood educators.
Patty’s been working with HelloJoey since the very beginning. It all started when she provided a parenting consultation to a couple experiencing difficulties with one of their kids. Her approach was effective, and it also closely aligned with their desire to change the world by promoting human awareness and interconnection. Like Hand in Hand, the couple agreed that changing parenting can change the world – and as their relationship with Patty developed, the concept of ParentLab developed, too.
To give you a glimpse into Patty’s world, we asked her about everything from the little ways she helps parents on a daily basis to the big-picture goals she has for the future. Here, she explains how to meaningfully connect with kids in just a few short minutes, why having a listening-buddy can make anyone a better parent, and how these tools have improved her own life – and her relationship with her college-age son.
What one thing about a child’s needs do you wish more parents understood?
Children need a sense of connection – warmth, respect, and trust in their intelligence – from their parents. No matter how off-track their behavior might be, their child wants to be relaxed, cooperative, and flexible and is eager to learn. It makes sense to connect with our children often and to hone our listening skills so our children can heal from hurt with our help.
Is there one simple way parents can connect with their kids every day that they often overlook?
Special Time creates connection at any age or stage of childhood. You set aside a certain amount of time – from 2 minutes to 30 minutes, tell your child that’s the amount of time you have, and then, with warmth, say, “I’ll play whatever you want to play! What do you want to play?” This lets children show us and tell us what they love, what they are trying to figure out, and what adventures they are excited to have. A whole lifetime of Special Times stands us in good stead. When I took a weekend to visit my 20-year-old son at university, he asked me, “Mom, when are we going to have Special Time?”
How can parents repair or rebuild broken connections with their kids?
We offer Listening Tools, and using these in concert can heal even the deepest hurts. These ways of connecting with children and repairing the hurt of torn or missing connection are:
Special Time, (described above) early and often
Playlistening, which is eliciting a child’s laughter in active, often very physical play, without tickling or disempowering the child
Setting Limits firmly with as much warmth and confidence in the child’s goodness as possible
Staylistening, supporting a child through big, important, and strongly-felt hurt feelings by pouring in caring and complete attention while the child pours out how alone, insulted, afraid, mistrustful, or angry this hurt has made them feel
Listening Partnerships, (described below), which use the connective and healing power of listening to turn lives around and get things going in a healthy direction
What’s your favorite activity or habit you recommend for building connection – and why?
Listening Partnerships – free parent-to-parent listening exchanges – might be the most important of the Listening Tools. These give us a way to think through how our parenting is going and to do our own necessary grieving, tantrums, rages, and whatever we need to do so we can unload tension and parent more intentionally. We are so much better able to love our children well when we have someone who can listen to our unruly emotions.
For example, doing listening exchanges, I realized I was having thoughts that my one-year-old was going to die! I talked about that in my Listening Time and discovered that he was reminding me of my younger sister – who had had a grave illness that started at seven months of age and did die very young. That began years of grieving for her during my Listening Time, and I obtained much relief from the longstanding guilt of not having been able to save her.
Is there a surprising or unacknowledged benefit for parents that comes from connection?
The human need to give love – and have it be received – Is stronger even than the need to be loved and “seen” for the good person that we are. Parenting gives us the chance to love and have our love be central to those in our family, and connecting with a child is so encouraging, so fulfilling, so touching. The road to connecting is painful at times for all of us; not all parents feel rewarded at first, but those rewards can and do come.
Will you share a funny story about one of your workshops?
I gave a class on Special Time at Lawrence Livermore Lab, and one father told me the following story: “I sat my three-year-old down and explained Special Time. I took about five minutes and finally, I said, ‘I’ll play anything you want. What do you want to play?’ He looked at me, sipped some milk, came close, and spit it all in my face!” We roared with laughter. That five-minute lecture about Special Time was a bit much, and the child decided to bring his dad out of his intellect and into the moment with that shower of milk. Anything can happen with Special Time, but whatever happens, children have some kind of genius they want to show us!
What’s left to learn about bonding and connection that’s most exciting to you?
I’m excited about getting our Listening Tools – which are trauma-recovery tools – into the hands of childcare workers everywhere. Connecting and listening to one another in a deep way changes our lives from the inside out. When we connect and support one another across the lines of race, class, age, and religion, we can move mountains – and what a joy it will be to do so!