Posted by: coachingparents | November 10, 2007

Witnessing Our Children

I sit cross-legged on the floor of the playroom. Eighteen-month old Sabrina moves closer and looks at me. She picks up a green crayon. I do the same. She says “uh”, and holds the crayon over her head. I do the same. I wait until she brings her hand down before I bring down mine. She is the leader, this is her dance and I am here to follow every step. She picks up another crayon, a blue one and taps both of them on the floor. The carpet muffles their sound so she awkwardly gets up and totters to the low table and tries again. I take another crayon; mine is purple and crawl over to the table. Bang, bang, go her crayons. “Eee,” she says. And “eee,” I go. She becomes aware of the game now and that she is in charge.

She looks at me to see what I will do. She bangs the crayons on the table again, then over her head, then back on the table. I follow every gesture, mimic every sound. Her smile stretches past her face and into my heart. She is making more sounds now, “Naa”.  She laughs when she discovers that there are no limits. She stands up and plops down on the carpet, then laughs from the root of her being. Tears come to my own eyes as I realize what I am doing. I am her witness. I am here to listen to her in her world in her way. I am the first person in her life to witness her this thoroughly. Sabrina has developmental delays. She is only just starting to walk. She has no words and she can’t use a spoon yet. Yet in this moment, she is being seen for who she is, not who she will be or who she should be. Just her, my sweet baby girl. I cry as I realize what a gift this is, for me to be her witness. All of us, every one of us, needs this, to be both witnessed and to give witness. Words aren’t necessary. Only the act of being here for another. No judgment, no concerns, no opinions at all.

Everything changed in that moment for me. I still get frustrated with my daughter. I still get resentful of her neediness. But I understand her now. I understand she is doing the best she can. And finally, at least for a time, it was enough.

Witnessing our children is the greatest gift we can give them. For in that moment, when we truly see them, we are affirming not only their divine presence but also ours. Witnessing is a conscious process. It is a mirror of our breath. In the inhale, we become aware of ourselves – our internal landscape of feelings, thoughts and sensations. In the exhale, we become aware of the other – in this case our child. We become attuned to who we are as witnesses and who we are witnessing. Our children receive us, our presence helps them feel secure to explore their world and themselves. They become more attuned to their own feelings and to others as they continue the witnessing circle.

My now two-and-a-half year-old daughter Sabrina still does not have words. She understands what we say to her. She responds to words. She does point at things she wants. She uses grunts and sounds. She uses eye contact and touching to get peoples attention. She communicates in many ways but she cannot express herself with words.

Scarlet Larkin is a pediatric speech pathologist in Boulder, Colorado. She arrives at our house one morning with paints, paper and brushes. She tapes a large piece of paper to the work table, lines up plastic bottles of tempera paint and sits next to Sabrina. She just sits. Sabrina reaches towards the paint and says, “Uh uh.” Scarlet mimics her gesture and sound and says “want”, then “paint”, then she waits. Sabrina points to the yellow bottle and says “uh uh” again. Scarlet echoes her and adds “yellow”. She hands Sabrina the bottle and looks at her. “Open” she says. Sabrina tries to open the bottle but can’t. “Help?” asks Scarlet and Sabrina answers with another “uh.” Together they pour the paint on the paper and Sabrina swipes at it with the chubby brush she holds in her left hand. They repeat this simple conversation as they move through the colors. Scarlet never uses questions. She doesn’t command Sabrina or makes decisions for her. Scarlet quietly bears witness to Sabrina. She enters her world. And together they paint with words.

Scarlet is helping Sabrina learn to express herself. “Learning to create is learning to express,” she says. “Painting is a focused way to learn communication skills.” Using painting for speech therapy gives kids a template where they can be in control. Non-verbal kids often are directed and commanded throughout their day. Scarlets’ system of painting where the paint is poured onto the picture rather than dipped from individual bowls becomes a form kids can anticipate and therefore a form they can control. “Kids who’ve painted with me for a while can get very direct about which color, how much and where on the page its going,” she says. “It’s very powerful for them.”

As Sabrina and Scarlet painted, Scarlet softly began adding more direct speech therapy. She’d look at Sabrina and say “mmmm, more” and notice if Sabrina closed her mouth to begin the M sound. She didn’t say “good job” but rather, “yes, I see you closed your mouth.” The first painting was thick with layers of paint. Scarlet taped down a fresh sheet and Sabrina painted a whole new style of painting with lots of swirls and dabs. Scarlet didn’t analyze what it meant; instead she just witnessed Sabrina painting.

In a basket next to my daughter, her three baby girl dolls sat up and watched Sabrina paint. At one point she brought them over to show them her pictures and she gestured to them frequently as if telling them about her painting. Three more witnesses to Sabrina’s self-expression.

Nothing eventful happened after Scarlet left with her paints and her paper. Sabrina didn’t suddenly start talking. But I noticed that I seemed more attuned with her. I watched my inhales and exhales more closely. Somehow, I felt more grounded and present myself. My thoughts seemed clearer, my words kinder. In witnessing Scarlet witnessing Sabrina, I too felt seen.

Copyright © Anna Stewart. All rights reserved worldwide.

About The Author …
Anna Stewart, B.A., C.M.T., C.H.T., mothers three young children, one with special needs. In her classes, workshops and services, she weaves her expertise as a professional writer, creative artist and student of rhythm dance. Her intention is to provide a safe environment for women to explore their personal experiences and feelings as mothers. Her skills as well as her passion to bear witness to others provides a solid base for compassionate understanding of the individual and the larger community.

Anna offers a number of classes in the Boulder, Colorado area. She can be reached at 303-499-7681 or via e-mail at


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