rethinking crying

When I look back at my early years of parenting, I realize I had a really hard time letting my children cry or experience discomfort, even when the thing they didn't like was for their highest good. There were times that I turned myself into a human pretzel trying to keep them from feeling distress. (Weaning comes to mind.)

Many parents are much better about this than I was, and if you are one of them, you probably won't find any benefit in reading further.

But if this is a growing edge for you like it is for me, perhaps it will be helpful for you to eavesdrop on a realization I had today.

This morning on my walk, my attention was captured by a piercing wail coming from a side street. When I looked over there to see what was going on, I spotted a mother holding a young child in her arms, trying to hand him off to his father. Every time the father reached out to take him, the child screamed, "No! Mama!" and clung to her with a vice like grip. It was a scene I remembered well from the days when my kids were little.

But this time, I saw it from a different perspective. And I felt a twinge of sadness about the way I handled this situation with my own kids.

When this happened to us, I perceived my children as being in the grip of separation anxiety. And of course it is normal and typical for children of a certain age to attach more closely to the parent who they spend the most time with and who does most of their caretaking. But today in the mirror of this couple, I could see that I had inadvertently been fueling a dynamic that went deeper than separation anxiety.

These parents were doing the exact same thing we did when my kids were little: every time the child screamed, the father backed off, and the mother stopped trying to hand him over.

What I realized today that I didn't understand years ago is that when we responded like this to our children's protests, we were not doing them a favor. In a sense, we were letting their as-yet-not-fully-developed brains call the shots.

Because their dad and I were both absolutely certain that they would be perfectly safe and secure with him. We knew that they were developmentally at the age where they had trouble with transitions. We were confident that they would be fine.

But by allowing my children to cling to me; by backing off from trying to hand them to their dad in that moment because they were distressed about it, I was fueling a different kind of anxiety in them.

Kids count on their parents to be calm, reassuring, and take good care of them. They look to us as role models. Their immature nervous systems entrain themselves to our mature systems, seeking guidance about how to respond to circumstances and events.

So in essence, when I let my child's protest dictate my actions, I was putting him in charge. And in a certain way, I was validating his fears. Because by not handing him over, I was telling him that there was indeed something to be afraid of in his father's arms. Without realizing it, I was demonstrating agreement with his assessment that the only safe place in his world was with me. I was inadvertently encouraging his fear.

What I wish I would have done is to calmly, clearly, and kindly peel my child off of me, hand him confidently to his dad with a smile and a kiss for both of them, and walk cheerfully away.

Granted, that would mean his dad was left to deal with a screaming mess who was kicking and squirming and wailing. But he would have done fine with that. In fact, being present for your children while they are expressing strong emotion is a fantastic way to bond with them.

So I hope I'll get the chance to do this differently with my grandchildren some day. I hope I can do what I think is best for them with calm, compassionate clarity, and to listen to their protests with attentive kindness while continuing on the course of action that I have consciously chosen with their best interests in mind.

This might mean peeling them off of me at times. This might mean playing a much different role than I could have imagined before today. But I think it would be a powerful gift to trust in a young child's resilience, and send them the message that they are strong and capable and adaptable and I know they will be fine even when they don't yet know it, and to let them know that I am not afraid of their tears.

(This is not the way I think it is best to handle older children and teenagers, however. In my opinion, as children grow they need to be involved in plotting the course toward their long term best interests as much as possible. So I would not blindly persevere on a course of action that I had set despite the protests of a child who was old enough to have a conversation with me. I would sit down with him and talk it over.)

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