Have you ever been stunned into silence discovering that a longtime acquaintance’s parenting beliefs were radically different than yours? That happened to me recently when a woman I’ve known for several years shared what she called the “unusual” way she and her husband had handled her toddler’s numerous tantrums. She giggled as she told me how they turned on the Eagles song “Get Over It” and loudly sang along, laughing while their boy was crying and flailing.
Get over it
Get over it
All this whinin’ and cryin’ and pitchin’ a fit
Get over it, get over it
I struggled to maintain an impassive expression, which was especially difficult knowing that this mom is also a psychologist and school counselor.
I’m sure this family’s intentions were good, and I can certainly relate to wanting a child’s emotional outbursts to end as soon as possible. But my heart hurt imagining this child’s experience as his feelings were ridiculed, invalidated, erased. Should children have to ‘snap out of it’, smile and laugh to please their parents when they feel like crying or yelling?
“I may be overly sensitive, but it even bothers me when I see an adult smiling at a crying, upset or sad child. Why do we want to manipulate young children’s moods and feelings?” -Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect
Confusion, invalidation, disrespect
Children need our empathy and acceptance when they are upset. Even in infancy, our children need to know that their feelings are legitimate and that expressing them is okay with us. Smiling, laughing, tickling, or telling children they’re okay when they cry might seem more benevolent than reacting angrily or telling them to be quiet, but the message is the same: You shouldn’t be upset. Your feelings aren’t valid or acceptable. A child can’t help but feel his feelings, so he’s left with the sense that there’s something wrong…with him.
A young child’s outbursts may appear to be unreasonable or an overreaction. Still, I’ve learned that we must do all we can to remain patient and let these waves of emotion pass. Feelings are just feelings, and they don’t always make sense. If we make the effort to acknowledge all the hard feelings and also to understand them, we help our child to understand them, too. The child feels unequivocally loved and supported in the process. “You really wanted the blue cup, and I only have the white one. I see how disappointed you are.”
“Sadness, discomfort, frustration – they are all valid human emotions. Why would we want to suppress them?” –Magda Gerber
Chasing happiness with inauthenticity
I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t have the instinct to please his or her children. Most of us want to do whatever it takes to make our kids happy. This is a great instinct, except when it leads us to faking our own happiness, stifling or indulging a child to avoid hearing her cries and objections, or neglecting opportunities to provide the behavior boundaries a child desperately needs. When our priority is to ‘keep ‘em smiling’ at all costs, we don’t help ourselves or our children in the long term.
A parent in my class was confused about advice she heard: “Play with your toddler when she throws her cup from the table, she’s signaling the need for a game of catch”. Seriously? As much as I love to play, I can’t imagine anything less appealing than trying to manufacture fun and playfulness when I’m not feeling it. I strongly disagree with this kind of advice and here’s why…
1. Modeling honesty
We are the most powerful models our children will ever have, and authenticity has to run both ways. Children read our subtext a mile away. We may be smiling and playing games, but they always know when we’re really annoyed, bored, or angry. Imagine how confusing and disconcerting it is for children to receive this dual message (not to mention how exhausting “keeping the party going” is for us).
“Accept the feelings of your baby, positive as well as negative. And allow your child to learn about you. Be genuine and honest in your interactions. You do not need to put on a sweet smile when you are awakened in the middle of the night. You are sleepy, so act sleepy.” –Magda Gerber
2. Children need answers
Children testing limits deserve a calm, direct and honest response and a little instruction. Toddlers don’t want to be an annoyance to us. But they have to keep testing until they know for certain what we expect them to do or not do. As I suggest in 5 Reasons We Should Stop Distracting Toddlers (And What Do To Instead), when we avoid confronting these requests and instead distract our child or turn limit setting into a game, the child’s challenging (but healthy!) need for boundaries is not being met. As a result, toddler testing might continue into the 3’s, 4’s and 5’s. Don’t underestimate a toddler’s ability to understand or cope with a truthful response. They need honest interactions with us from the start.
Children perceive our inauthentic responses as dismissive and uncaring. How do I know? I’m embarrassed to say that I have the habit of covering my own inattention and other awkward moments with unconscious laughter. My 9 year old son has been calling me on it lately. Just the other day, he asked me something while I was writing and I tittered, not having listened to him, and he scolded me. When I asked him, genuinely curious, why my fake laugh bothered him he answered, “It’s like you don’t care at all.” I was chagrined, but it made total sense. The nice thing about 9 year olds is that they can tell you what they’re thinking. Infants and toddlers can’t.
I remember everyone, even random strangers, chanting “smile!” at me when I was young. It was well-intentioned, but it was annoying having to perform to please everyone when I didn’t happen to feel like smiling. The worst was “Smile! You’re so much prettier that way!” Must I appear to be happy all the time…and pretty, too? Can’t you like me as I am? What’s so great about a smile, anyway, if it doesn’t come from within?
Magda Gerber believed passionately in nurturing authenticity, inner-directedness, and honest relationships between parents and children. Few child care experts have been as outspoken about these things, especially in regard to infancy. She was a model of the approach she espoused – couldn’t “fake it” if she tried. Her influence changed my life and I can’t thank her enough. This approach might take more diligence, and we won’t be perfect, but a commitment to authenticity will ultimately set us free – child and parent. And I’m learning that the freedom to be real is a sure way to happiness…the enduring kind.
“I can be sad or happy whenever anything makes me sad or happy; I don’t have to look cheerful for someone else, and I don’t have to suppress my distress or anxiety to fit other people’s needs. I can be angry and no one will die or get a headache because of it.” – Dr. Alice Miller, (a baby’s fantasy) Drama of the Gifted Child
“No wonder so many adults seek therapy, trying to sort out how they really feel.” –Magda Gerber
I share more about nurturing emotional health in
(Photo by Cilou101 on Flickr)