The Happiest Kids Don’t Have To Smile

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.

3. Confession…

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.

Smile!

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

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

(Photo by Cilou101 on Flickr)

63 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Really interesting what you said about smiling on demand. I was a child model, so I learned to smile on cue and got a lot of positive reinforcement for it.

    But about 40 years later in relationship counselling, my counsellor pointed out that I had an odd habit of smiling at completely inappropriate moments- when I was expressing sadness, for example. Like any ‘trained seal’ response, a smile that’s been disassociated from its emotional meaning can become a problem; in my case, I was smiling to try to gain acceptance for feelings I thought might be unacceptable.

    Interesting, don’t you think?

    1. Yes, Annie, very interesting. I think many of us have issues like you’re describing. We’re taught not to be comfortable with our real feelings, beginning as infants, and we pass that discomfort on generation to generation. I’m not criticizing… I see this in myself, too. But I love what Magda Gerber often said about her child care approach: “We’re going to put the therapists out of business!”

  2. as always, this post is so timely! i’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. growing up, i was a big time people pleaser. i was voted “sweetest” in jr. high. i never liked confrontation, and never wanted to ruffle any feathers. and now, i’m in therapy trying to deal with all the pressure. definitely NOT the way i want to raise my daughter. this article inspires me to start now, whiles she’s just a small infant, at showing her that it’s ok to be upset and disappointed, and there are healthy ways to work through those feelings instead of covering them up. thanks janet!

    1. Beautifully said, Kristin. I can definitely relate. And you made my day! Thanks!

  3. THis reminds me of a conversation I had the other day with a local shop assistant who sees my kids on a regular basis and likes to interact with them. She asked me if my oldest child was ‘OK’ as in does he have a label that will help me catergorise his responses to me. I smiled and said yep he’s fine, he’s just true to who he is and if he doesn’t want to talk he won’t he if doesn’t want to smile he won’t. Most people take offence or think theres something wrong with him. Me? I admire him and aspire to be as true to myself at some time in the future. I feel very lucky t have someone to guide me so strongly by showing me what that looks like.
    Thanks for your post, hearing these things helps keep me strong when faced with the questions of the ‘normality’ of my children.

    1. Let me encourage you further by mentioning that, in my experience, children whose authenticity has been fostered cannot behave otherwise. Being a people pleaser myself, it’s stunning to me to see that my children (aged 9-18) are incapable of falseness in any way, shape or form. Like you, I admire this in my children…in fact it blows me away! It also keeps children safer, because they don’t feel that they belong to anyone and everyone…that the world owns them. They are kind and polite to others and they mean it. They are free to be themselves. Authenticity is a wonderful gift, and you and your children don’t ever have to “answer” to anyone. Cheers!

  4. Hi Janet, greetings from the Blue Mountains in Australia! Since a friend shared a facebook link to your page last week, I have been avidly catching up on the archives, and so inspired and excited by the thoughts and spirited exchanges in and after your posts. Thank you so much.
    And this is another spot-on article. How true that as adults we often pretend to be OK when things are not, to the point of denying our feelings altogether, and if we could only help our kids avoid this pattern and the problems that come with it, I think we’d see a very different social picture. However, in seeking to be honest with (and therefore teach emotional honesty to) our kids, I do feel that a balance needs to be struck; teaching what is and what is not ‘acceptable’ behaviour, deciding what sorts of behavious of ours we need to expose them to and what we need to shield them from. Some things they just shouldn’t have to deal with (loud and agressive conflict, for example)as babys and toddlers and small children. As adults (hopefully having learned the basic tenets of self control), I think we have a responsibility to be role models of, yes, socially acceptable behaviour, even if we don’t always feel like it. And teaching that choosing to exercise one’s ‘right’ to free expression, regardless of how it affects others, may also result in often uncomfortable consequences. On the less extreme end of the scale, I would be abit ashamed if I used the ‘they need to learn emotional honesty’ or the ‘I have a right to express what I’m feeling’ excuse to indulge in a bout of crabbiness and not at least make an effort to pull myself together!
    I’ve been trying something lately with my 15 month old boychild; I try to talk my thoughts out, like your example with the cup, both of his and my feelings; agknowledging them but not necessarily staying there. I think a joke or a tickle or a quick run through the house and swing around and rough horsey is often a good way to get past the initial moment of having the grumps without trivialising what he’s feeling; and if I’m in a funk I find that a conscious change of pace / scene / activity helps me too (and sends the message that I try to practice what I preach!). It’s one thing to feel angry / cranky / frustrated, it’s another to choose to stay that way when it’s in my power to change the way I feel. Also, doing something physical or just something else to take oneself out of that place gives one space and time to actually realise and agknowledge what one is feeling. Having the ability to take a step back and adjust perspective can help enourmously in developing the all-important ‘think first, then act’ reflex… the earlier mastery of which would have saved me much pain and anguish of every kind, especially through my teenage years 🙂 As my son grows towards the ‘terrible two’s’, I anticipate big rushes of emotions that he will struggle to articulate and grasp and deal with; I plan to be open and patient and encouraging and loving as he struggles (probably very loudly at times) with these huge lessons, and try to help him bravely surmount the obstacles! I do think there is a place for the discerning use of ‘re-placers’ (not supressors or dis-tractors)that can help him move past the moment and give him space, and also confidence, to deal with what he is / was feeling. Like monsters in the dark – instead of staying in the dark in order to feed the feeling, or deny the monster altogther, it can help to turn on the light or change rooms … then if the monster was really real, it can be dealt with with a clearer view and from a more confident place. And if it turns out that there really wasn’t anything there after all, we can breath a big sigh of relief and say ‘that was scary!’ but feel good knowing that we were ready and would have had all the necessary tools to hand to beat the bugger 🙂 For me the key here is Bravery – so important for emotional challenges as well as physical ones. I seek to foster in my boy a mindful and brave approach to dealing with feelings, from highs to lows and everything in between. And for me to be brave and trusting enough to allow him space to both fly and fall.

    Thanks again for your work and sparks!
    warm regards,
    Natasha

    1. What a lucky boy! Natasha, I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve written. Yes, step back, get perspective and have a good laugh at yourself and the situation whenever possible. Enjoy your children… This all goes by very quickly! And I don’t equate authenticity with doing whatever we feel like doing (or expressing to children all of our feelings.). Of course there must be behavior limits, and appropriate outlets for the feelings (i.e., punch this pillow, not your friend). Authenticity for adults isn’t letting everything hang out, it’s not pretending we feel things that we don’t, and not asking our children to fake it (or bury it) either.

      Thanks for sharing!
      Cheers!
      Janet

  5. What a relief to read this post. I too believe it essential to validate my toddler’s emotions. Living with my in-laws (including in-law siblings) as neighbors (yes, all of them – think Everybody Loves Raymond), I constantly see how they attempt to invalidate emotions, at all ages. Not surprisingly, I experience the adult outcome of this on a daily basis through my husband.

    It is amazing how little emotion any of them show, ever (my husband barely showed excitement for our son’s birth, simply because he was trained not to show them).

    It is very difficult to make it work, when my son is often not validated by his own family, but I hope that as the Mommy (and Daddy is really catching on!!), our influence will be that which will help guide him through life.

    Which leads me to a question that has been bothering me since well before the birth of my son…There are many negative influences through my husband’s family (as well as many, many positive ones and an huge abundance of love) that I simply cannot control. Apart from moving, which is a serious consideration, I have tried everything: talking with them, talking to my husband to talk with them, ignoring bad behaviors, calling out bad behaviors when appropriate, even stopping visits to grama, my last ditch effort to demand some minimal level of respect for the way we are raising our child (which doesnt work as she lives right behind us). They simply do not understand the real and nasty effects of their behaviour, not validating emotions, over-indulging with food, extreme over-indulging in the case of tears, smoking in the vicinity (I KNOW,I KNOW and I REALLY, REALLY TRIED EVERYTHING. This is the main reason I want to move my baby out).

    It has well been proven that this is a battle I cannot win.

    I would love it if you could discuss the impact of such close influences vs. our influences on our son?

    It is such a difficult and sensitive topic, they really believe that they know best (by proxy, that means I don’t) and that either he wont be affected, it will pass, or it just doesn’t matter, and that I am some crazy Momzilla, because I dont buy into their way of childrearing, and because I made the “mistake” of reading up on childrearing (they really can’t believe I would learn something from a book, forum, respected parenting or healthcare websites and still make fun of me for it…yes, I often feel cornered).

    This was supposed to be a comment thanking you for such a well written blog, but turned into my most gnawing question.

    I would love some advice from you, as I truly respect what you have to say, and am very curious as to what I am missing here…

    Thank you!

    Safra

    1. Safra, thanks for your kind words…and I’m sorry you are dealing with such an uncomfortable situation! The way I see it, your son will not be affected nearly as much by these family members as you are being affected. Their disregard for your parenting choices and the effort you are making to educate yourself is a shame, and something you’ll have to come to terms with. But you and your husband are, by a mile, the most influential people in your boy’s life. He may form bonds with the others, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but you and your husband are the ones who are shaping him. He’s well aware of your greater investment in him. Now, if you can avoid leaving your boy in the daily care of these family members (or anyone else with child-rearing views that conflict with yours) until he is older (5 or so), all the better. Occasional child care is fine.

      The best news is that your insightfulness and all the emotional intelligence you and your husband are gaining are going to benefit your son bigtime. Hang in there! Keep modeling the childrearing you value. Don’t bother getting into it with people who may never come around. Anyway, they are probably learning more from you than they are willing to let on. Just let them be…and enjoy your son!

      1. Brillant! Sometimes it makes all of the difference to hear (or read) a few small words. If it is overwhelmingly me that is affected by this situation, and what he is learning from them will not have as strong of an impact as I had feared, then I can make the best of it!

        Thank you so much for your encouragement.

  6. I fully understand the value of authenticity. For many years now I have been working on being mindful, ie aware of the reactive thought stream that is running almost constantly and that can claim much if my attention if I do not work on being aware. As a parent I now find this practice so valuable as I am so much quicker to untangle the subtle layers of ‘programmed’ fear reaction and respond in ways that resonate with my direct experience.
    I applaud authenticity but also caution the assumption that our unconscious reactions are truly representative of our authentic selves? As humans we have the ability to embrace and accept our animal reactivity, a result of the instinctive judgement of our ancient reptilian brain, the hypothalamus, but to respond from a calmer, broader, more joined up level of understanding. I believe this is a very authentic way of being human to teach my son, particularly in this fast paced, fear fueled, goal driven, reactive society?

    1. Helen, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and your process. Yes, adult authenticity (the calmer, broader, more joined up level of understanding you describe so well) looks quite different from authenticity in a very young child, since children lack the self-control that comes with maturity. As adults, we can’t (unfortunately!) flop down in the middle of the supermarket and kick and scream because our favorite brand of soy milk is sold out. Parenting with authenticity means not being phony, insincere, manipulative. But it doesn’t mean letting loose with all our feelings and instincts or being reactive. We are models for our children of what it is to be human…in adult form.

  7. such a great post! great, great, great.

    i’ve had some question about the idea of chasing happiness with inauthenticity (perfect way to put it, by the way!) with the “playful parenting” approach.

    that idea (and the actual book by the same name) comes up often but i’ve always had a difficult fully digesting it or feeling like it’s the right way to go.

    so reading this today really helped me solidify and clarify my feelings about it.

    i truly believe that “misbehavior” (throwing the cup for example) can often be a cry for connection or attention but your points about modeling honesty, limit setting and authenticity are so spot-on that the idea of engaging in play sends a whole bunch mixed signals their way… just doesn’t *feel* right.

    it’s so clear to me that i need to dig deeper into RIE. i have been heavily influenced and inspired by aletha solter (and am lucky to live in santa barbara, where she lives, and have taken a few of her workshops!) but all signs are pointing me to RIE!

    is “your self confident baby” the best place to start? my guy is just over two now…

    (and do you offer phone consults by any chance?!)

    xo

    1. Sara, thanks for your thoughts… I totally agree with this!: “i truly believe that “misbehavior” (throwing the cup for example) can often be a cry for connection or attention…” But true connection and attention means being intimate and honest, don’t you think? Not acting la-de-da, as if the behavior never happened. That is disconnection with the child and inattention to reality. It’s insincere and underestimates children. Babies are extremely perceptive and on-the-ball.

      Regarding RIE, I would definitely read Your Self-Confident Baby or Dear Parent. I’m a big fan of Aletha Solter’s work, but she may not go into as much detail about inner-directed play, etc. And yes, I do phone consultations. Please email me at janet@janetlansbury.com and we can figure that out. xo

      1. i couldn’t agree more bout true connection – and totally wouldn’t shelf honesty/limits/authenticity to “connect” in an attempt to fix something. in that type of situation the connection may very well come when i’m present and empathetic for the big feelings that come up as a result of my honesty/limit setting etc.

        and yay! i’ll email you soon.

        thanks for the book recommendations, too…

        1. Bingo… “in that type of situation the connection may very well come when i’m present and empathetic for the big feelings that come up as a result of my honesty/limit setting etc”. And that is exactly the kind of attention and connection that I believe the child is seeking.

  8. ps: the “get over it” approach? ugh. hurts my heart 🙁

  9. janet, this is certainly food for thought – thanks. I am currently settling 26 children into my nursery class & I will approach the anxiety that some feel 1st thing in the morning in a totally different way – thanks

  10. What a great post. I am often treated within the family as over indulging my children by allowing more emotional interaction & expression than what is typically allowed. I grew up in an environment where I could say something like, “I am sooooo angry with Bobby!” and my mom would literally say, “Oh you are not” and to this day she does that to me. She tries to reframe it for me & explain HOW I am not angry (which basically consists of giving the other person the benefit of the doubt regardless of whether giving said benefit makes any sense). Mind you, I am nearing 40 now. She is otherwise a very loving, sweet, involved mother. I never hurt for lack of hugs & love & being encouraged to try things out & explore my talents, etc. I just hate that she does this when it comes to feelings. Over the years I have yelled at her more than once saying, “but tell me how you FEEL. Saying you ‘wish it were different’ is NOT telling me your feelings!” – and she seems completely confused as to what I am asking her to do. I truly believe this was so lost to her so long ago she cannot really tell me what she feels, as she confuses emotion with other things & cannot seem to give her true feelings a voice. I have given up on it now. She is in her 70’s & these types of conversations & interactions cause her visible distress & get us no closer to her actually articulating her own feelings. I am sure she gave this up either willingly or unwillingly because she thought it was the “right thing to do” & finds it confusing & rebellious that I won’t do the same. She thinks it is “causing problems” to air my feelings with fellow family members, even if it is not done arguing – but just to put it out there. If I have been done wrong & I tell someone they have hurt me by doing so, she feels I am in the wrong for making them feel bad. That is just how she is. She is an awesome gramma & I am grateful my boys have such a loving gramma in their life. My own gramma was rather cold & busy & I love her, but as a child I felt stifled to just be at her home. I guess I think that with each generation we have a greater chance to heal this & keep moving forward. Her generation raised my generation that was allowed slightly more expression & hopefully my generation allows even more.

  11. I don’t really agree that playing a song invalidated that child’s feelings. You don’t learn to put appropriate perspective on your feelings if they are all treated as valid. It isn’t valid or reasonable to throw a tantrum over the wrong color of cup. Angry or not, the actions are not appropriate and shouldn’t be treated like it is OK to feeeeeeeeel like that. When our kids would have a fit in the car, we would turn the music way up over their cries, and they would stop because they were not getting the attention they wanted and they wanted it turned down.
    I know that you are saying it is the words in the song that are invalidating, but really it is just putting humor into the situation that only time is going to change. Sometimes as parents, all you can do is laugh until a particular stage is over.
    I have 7 kids, all extremely well adjusted, loving, happy. Three are adults, 2 are married. The majority of my kids almost never threw fits, because we don’t find it acceptable behavior. (the first two I had no idea what I was doing, lol)
    It is ok to be disappointed, and even express it, but when it turns into inappropriate behavior, it shouldn’t be validated any more. Then it is no longer disappointment but fury that they are not getting their way, and that feeling is no longer appropriate.

    1. I would have to say a toddler being sung over is invalidating. I don’t believe toddlers can have appropriate or inappropriate behavior as that goes above their comprehension. Is it inappropriate for a toddler to poop its pants when in public? No. But it would be for you or I to randomly decide to do it. Tantrums are generally a phase of a child’s life. You can validate, ignore, invalidate and even mock them & other than in cases where a parent has set up a “pay off” dynamic for tantrums, they ALL get over them with age & usually in relatively short order. I have raised two older girls (who are now parents) that weren’t mine by birth and came to me at an older age & I have two little ones at home that are mine by birth. None threw fits for long despite the fact that I didn’t drown it out with music or ignore it. I allow them time to voice their unhappiness, offer them cuddles or hugs if they think that will help or time alone if they wish to be undisturbed. For all of them it passed relatively shortly. There were things I did with my older two that I don’t do with my little ones. It isn’t because they didn’t work, those things did work, that is why I did them in the first place. But like most things, in time, I learned that there are BETTER ways to do some things and I can get the same results, so I see no reason not to change it. If I can get the same result with the child AND not cause them any more bad feelings in the process, why on earth would I opt not to do it? The ONLY thing that makes me certain that I am truly a good mom is my ability to be open to the idea that I don’t know everything & I am sometimes even wrong. I can always learn something new & integrate it into what I am doing & I will never stop being open to learning. I think I have a good foundation in what I have been through & the relationship I have with my older two. I have been kind, loving, patient & consistent with my kids. I also know that as a human, I can always do better. Although children will always experience disappointment & frustration & that is okay & certainly an important part of learning how to cope with our emotions, I can’t imagine that any parent wants to intentionally be a further part of that disappointment & frustration by ignoring their feelings. You are right that there are certainly inappropriate ways of expressing emotions (such as hitting) but those things are all age relative & need to be addressed for what they are. Ignoring extreme feelings that accompany tantrums, in a belief that a child is truly learning how to cope through the ignoring, is similar to me in believing that a child left to cry themselves to sleep is truly learning a self soothing technique. It works. They stop crying at night, at some point. I am not sure they have learned anything other than “no one is coming, so why bother trying”. That seems good to some parents, because they want the child to go to bed easily & to not wake them until morning. To me it seems like a broken spirit. My point is that there are lots of things that work. Is it healthy to do that just because it works? Is a child being well adjusted & loving a sign that we did everything right? It can’t be. I know it can’t be because if we are human then there is no way you or I did everything right. I have yet to meet one parent that doesn’t have some area they could improve on or some way they mess up here & there. Heck I have had days that I messed up before I even got out of bed. LOL My older kids are doing good. They will tell you that I was “great”. I also bear in mind that they compare me to the “before” and that taints how “great” they think I was as well. I still know I didn’t do it all right & that they turned out as well as they did both because of the things I did “right” and despite the things I “wrong”.

      1. While I do agree with you, QTpies7, that we should not validate inappropriate behavior, like lashing out physically at another, or hurting oneself when angry, I definitely do NOT agree that a child’s feelings (or anyone’s feelings, for that matter) of frustration, anger, fury, extreme joy, etc., are ours to categorize as appropriate or inappropriate and attempt to manipulate and control. Your expression “feeeeeel” belies your scorn for displays of emotion. Perhaps that judgment is appropriate between you and other adults, but young children are quite different. They are just learning about feelings — how to understand and express them. The big difference between toddlers and adults is their lack of self-control (as Ophelia mentions…they don’t control their bowels easily either) and the vast amount of learning and developing they are doing within a very brief span of time. That rapid development causes many frustrations.

        When a toddler “loses it” over the color of a cup, she is offloading a mountain of feelings that she’s been storing up for some time. This healthy process is only possible when the parent trusts, accepts, listens and allows the feelings to run their course, providing support and empathy.

        We take a big risk when we teach children that they should not be feeling what they are feeling. Those feelings don’t just disappear when we get the child smiling again, they are stuffed, bottled up, turned inward, and when this becomes a pattern it can be extremely damaging. All because we are impatient, annoyed, inconvenienced.

    2. finally @ QTpies7 … i completely agree with you !

  12. The introductory story was pretty upsetting to me, too. If someone treated ME that way, I would certainly feel invalidated and probably not trust them with my feelings. It’s odd that parents don’t see this when it comes to their children.

    I love how you boil down our reactions to our kids’ emotions to AUTHENTICITY. When I think about it that way, it feels respectful to both me and my toddler, and also incredibly liberating. Beautiful!

  13. this is wonderful. so well said. I honestly can’t say enough! I so often feel like I’m a crazy mom when I just let my son ride out his emotions instead of trying to just quickly make him feel better. just as I don’t want be told not to be sad about something… that it’s no big deal… I would hate for him to be told that as well! I love our open and honest relationship… even if he is only three, he knows he is has a safe place to feel whatever it is he needs to feel.

    thank you for such beautifully written and insightful words 🙂

  14. avatar Courtney Peters says:

    this post really struck a chord with me. my 2 yo son is thoughtful and slow to warm to new people. when people in grocery stores comment b/c he doesn’t wave or smile back (and they do constantly) “what’s wrong?” “you’re not gonna say hi to me?” or “no smile for me?” etc Even the grandparents comment how he doesn’t smile as lot and how nice it is when they see him smile. “He seems so unhappy” etc. He does laugh and smile, but only around people he is comfortable with. He is very absorbed in his play and they expect him to stop what he is doing and perform for them like a trained seal. Its upsetting to me because strangers, family etc act like he must be unhappy because he doesn’t grin at every stranger on the street. it also reminds me of growing up (and now since she still does it) when my mom would comment “Smile, you look prettier that way” The emphasis with her always was, and is, on appearances rather than how you are really feeling… as usual an amazing post. thanks!! i stalk your site constantly for new work 🙂

  15. Hi, I just stumbled by and read the post about smiling. I’m 63 years old now, but I remember my mother telling me to “smile” all the time when I was young. I don’t have any photographs of me smiling.
    We had a very difficult life, she was a divorced school teacher in a small town, there was lots of inappropriate gossip. She was a good woman, but I had to keep up appearances.
    To add to things, we were poor, and I developed a huge under-bite which we couldn’t have fixed, without smiling, I look very stern and angry, much like a bull dog.
    I also had a terrible temper.People never intimidated me possibly because of my look and attitude,but…but also I became known for my beautiful smile…I learned to “use” my smile, and feel I am not very attractive without it, though my husband thinks so. Fortunately,I don’t often think about my “look”, and have become quite successful. I write this just to say, I never was encouraged to “be” who I was as a child, and didn’t learn that I had words and feelings of my own until I was in college.I do admire my daughter and other young mothers who listen to their children and accept them for who they are..

    1. I love your comment, Mary. Thank you for sharing!

    2. Love your story, Mary. Thank you for sharing!

  16. Uh! The more I read your blog the more I wish we could make it required reading for anyone even thinking about having a child.

    This post, is my favorite so far, as I feel that many many many parents have trouble dealing with their children’s painful emotions, mostly because they’re afraid of their own emotions.

    Glossing over, dismissing, or pacifying a child’s sadness, anger, frustration or whatever is a great way to raise an incompetent, passive-aggressive, narcissistic adult-child who is lost in how to navigate independent adult life due to a repression of his authenticity. Such a child will eventually becomes lost in the world without a real sense of who he is, with a fragile ego incapable of dealing with the hardships of everyday life. …Am I right or am I right?

    Being honest and *real* with your child fosters acceptance, authenticity, honesty… it builds self-esteem, confidence, ambition, respect, responsibility, boundaries, relationship, etc. The real honesty and real validation from a parent is everything to a child, and so many kids are not being seen for who they really are but are used as vessels for their parents projections, their parents hopes and dreams, or are not really seen at all, as the parents live in denial of who the child really is… a separate, unique, independent individual with separate needs, separate wants, and separate feelings, etc.

    I truly believe the best thing a parent can give a child is to really know themselves… even, and especially, the deepest most hidden, subconscious parts of their inner world… what are your faults? what are your weaknesses? What are you really afraid of? What do you feel deep deep down? Exploring those parts of yourself means really knowing who you are which leads to accepting yourself through and through… thus you see yourself honestly… and that right there is what being authentic really means. It means seeing the deep pit of your psyche, getting dirty in it and being okay with the mess inside you. It means celebrating imperfection because pretending to be perfect is inauthentic and is a lie.

    Only when you accept your authentic self will you be able to be okay with your child’s authenticity. And that is all a child really wants from his or her parents… to be seen for who he really is and to be accepted and validated for who he really is, imperfections, messy emotions, faults and all.

    Stop pretending everything is okay when its not. Stop glossing over and denying whats standing in front of your face, start accepting what’s really there: the thorns, the mess, the dirt, the *humanness* of life. And don’t smile when you don’t want to. Sheesh!

    Wow… that was a rant… feels good to let it out. 😀

  17. avatar Heather Noel says:

    This is such a powerful post; thank you! As someone who was raised in a home where I was taught that anger was a sin and that feelings were a fabrication of humanist psychology (I was never allowed to say “I feel” but rather “I think”), it is of tantamount importance to me that I raise my daughter to feel her emotions unabashedly and with support. I’m so glad you brought up the point about how often people will say “Smile!” like a commandment. That’s something men will say even to grown women and I find it sexist and insulting. I was once walking home from work after learning a friend had died, and a man told me to “Smile!” It was so distasteful and patronizing. And it made me want to tell every grumpy old man to “Smile!” in my most annoying voice.

  18. Another “hello” from Down Under – this time from Geelong, Victoria!
    I just wanted to say (again) how much I love your site and posts. Honestly, I am amazed at how much your perspective resonates with me. It just makes sense. Although I do have to constantly remind myself what I am doing and occasionally find myself slipping back into old habits far too easily (I’m a first-time mum of a 19-month old – old habits come from my parents and being the eldest in a single-parent family. It’s unreal how quickly we can revert in the heat of the moment).
    The big one for me from this post? How much having others tell you to smile as a child impacts you as adult! It was strangely comforting to see so many others share the same experience and how that so negatively shaped our lives, and that we are only just coming to terms with it now.
    Sadly, this same trait has been something about my son that I felt I had to justify to others. As a previous poster so eloquently put it “he’s fine, he’s just true to who he is and if he doesn’t want to talk he won’t if doesn’t want to smile he won’t.” I will be borrowing this!
    Thanks for the continued inspiration!
    Kirstie

    1. Hi Kristie! So good to hear from you. Yes, I love “…he’s fine, he’s just true to who he is and if he doesn’t want to talk he won’t if doesn’t want to smile he won’t”. Truly inspired…and wish I’d thought of that one. 🙂

  19. What a great and interesting post. It really got me thinking about whether I put pressure on my son to react in a certain way and switch off his real emotions. I think I usually allow them to play out but this has prompted me to be more conscious of my interactions, especially when he is throwing a tantrum.
    I’m also really inspired by the great comments you have collected.

  20. I have always been baffled by the frequently-heard (at least in my world) expression, “Oh, he’s only doing that to get attention,” with the accompanying assumption that whatever-it-is should be ignored or even punished. I always want to ask (and sometimes have asked), “would you also say, Oh, he’s only doing that because he’s hungry, and then not give him any food?” If he’s hungry, he needs food, you give him food. Why not give him attention if that’s what he needs?

    Early on with my kids (two daughters, now grown), I learned that giving my full attention to the child was the simplest, happiest *and quickest* way to getting on with whatever else it was I wanted to do. There were a few occasions where it was necessary for me to finish something I was doing first – although far fewer than I initially supposed there would be – and the kids were generally very comfortable with me doing that, knowing I would soon be available.

    Contrary to predictions from certain family members, both kids were very independent very early on, and happily absorbed in their own projects without demanding my constant attention. I always felt that was because they were certain that they could have it whenever they actually needed it.

  21. Reading this really hurts, considering the fact that when I was little my mother would emotionally (& physically) abuse me in this way. Not only would she beat me, but when I would cry because of it, she’d beat me even more & yell at me because I was crying (& asking me WTF I was crying for).

    Yet she still wonders why, growing up, I was never my ‘true’ self around her- I’d never joke around at home, or show emotion.

    It’s awful, but it makes me doubt my own ability to ever have children- I know I would not ever want them to be subjected to that, but to be honest I’ve never been exposed to any other method of controlling child tantrums (I grew up pretty isolated). There were many times when I would have to physically hurt myself to stop myself from hurting my little sister when she would throw tantrums herself.

    See how the cycle never ends?

    1. I am so sorry to hear about your suffering, but I believe you can break this cycle. The recognition you already have is the first step. It is never about controlling another’s feelings and outbursts, but rather accepting them as natural and normal. When they are accepted, they pass quickly.

      Take good care.

  22. avatar Zac Phillips says:

    We spend so much of our energy on our expectations of the performance of our children. The gem for me in this post is that all we really need to do is to be present with the toddler’s sensory and emotional experience. We need to acknowledge, validate and yes set a boundary when needed but not to expect them to be happy because it makes you uncomfortable yourself. I’ve noticed with my wonderful and challenging 2.5 y.o. that the time I am most out of touch with his needs is when I am most judgmental of my own performance as a parent. The tantrums can trigger that feeling I’m doing something “wrong”, and then subconsciously I want my son to perform the right way to curb my own insecurities. All of this causes unnecessary suffering when what is really needed in the situation is a connection and a boundary

  23. Hi Janet, this was a very interesting post for me for several reasons. I definitely allow my children (a 3-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl) to feel their feelings and validate them as well, my problems come more with my husband (who I am absolutely sure was not given this respect as a child). He suffers from depression and I often find myself asking him to be ‘happy’ in front of the children. I know that this sounds bad, but if he was to act negatively (and it can be VERY negative) whenever he had these feelings, it becomes really hard for us all to have a happy time together. Also, when he’s feeling particularly bad, we’ve found that by putting a big, silly grin on his face, he often begins to feel a bit better and then ends up having a much more positive day (and obviously therefore much more positive interactions with us all) than if he had walked around looking as low as he initially felt. He has been on anti-depressants for a while and is now trying to come off them. We are working on meditation and mindfulness techniques and hopefully will work on being happier inside and outside! Am I doing him an injustice by asking him to try to look happier than he feels if the children know anyway? I know my question is more about an adult here than a child, but our family dynamic is so very shaped by my husband’s mood as it is obvious how much the ‘bad’ days affect the children. I only found your blog quite recently and am really enjoying learning from your insights, thank you!

    1. Hi Lauren, I think you’re handling the situation well. From what I know about depression (and I’ve been there) it makes us very self-absorbed, so helping your husband understand that his moods affect the family and also encouraging him to “get out of himself” is positive, in my view. In order to encourage our children’s authenticity, I think we sometimes have to put theirs before ours and project calm and peace even when we’re not feeling those things.

      Here’s another post you might find interesting: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2011/05/should-we-share-our-feelings-with-babies/

      1. Thank you so much Janet, I read your other article (and watched the video too which I found very difficult to watch, heart-breaking actually, I don’t know how she managed it for a full two minutes, but really interesting!). I am learning so much from your words of wisdom – I hope I can keep putting it into practice because I can definitely see how it makes such a difference to the children. Thank you again for helping me on this amazing and emotionally challenging parenting journey!

  24. avatar Nonbelieverinpyschobabble says:

    What tripe… or more aptly, psychobabble. As a coach for many years, I quickly came to the conclusion that teachers and psychologists make for the worst parents as they indulge their brats in such nonsense. “Validation” has become such a misnomer when misused like this. Were your brats “validated” when everyone got a trophy, no matter how untalented they were. Now these brats are looking for “validation” of every insignificant thing they do and are failing miserably in the REAL WORLD. I am just “validating” your irrelevance.

    1. You seem to have very strong feelings about this issue. Pushed a button, did it? It’s also obvious you didn’t comprehend the post or you’d know that it has absolutely nothing to do with praise or trophies. In fact, my suggestion is the exact opposite: allow kids to feel disappointment, rather than whitewashing situations in order to keep them smiling.

      Do you have suggestions for responding to young children’s feelings, so that they don’t become “brats”? Or are you just about being defensive and slamming other people’s views without anything helpful of your own to share?

  25. I definitely do my best to accept and validate emotions. I do, however, find times that I can help my older kids recognize that they are in control of their own emotions and that there are things they can do to change how they feel if they choose to. For example, if I am feeling angry about something I can’t do anything about, I express my anger (in a way that doesn’t hurt or scare other people), and when I am ready I choose to do something that can help me offload those big feelings– clean the kitchen or go out in the garden, for example.

    I don’t force them to do something to make themselves “feel better” (it wouldn’t work even if I wanted to), but I do remind them that there are things they can do if they want to. My oldest, who is ten, has expressed that she sometimes feels “stuck” in a negative emotion and appreciates the reminders that she is in control and that there are things she can do to feel calmer so that she is then ready to problem-solve or talk about what is going on.

  26. avatar Persephone says:

    Hi Janet

    I’m not sure if you will still see this comment as I think this post may have been written a while ago. But I would love your thoughts on an issue that my husband and I struggle with in relation to our almost 5 year old daughter. We only discovered RIE in the last year or so, and have been implementing it with our youngest daughter (14 months). But that means we didn’t use it with our eldest (Ella) and so she is probably not as self-confident as she might have been – which pains me greatly. Anyway, the problem is that she cries ALL the time. The littlest thing will send her off, and it’s almost always full blown, LOUD crying that these days now upsets our youngest as well. We have tried to empathise, “time in”, acknowleding etc but it doesn’t seem to help and indeed arguably makes her cry longer and harder because now she’s getting some mileage from it (in the past out of utter frustration and exhaustion we have tried ignoring the “spilt milk” style crying, which possibly didn’t help our longer term efforts). The crying now just makes us irritated, frustrated and sometimes angry when it is so loud and upsets our younger child, sending her off crying too…I would love to be able to respond calmly and sympathetically in all instances, but I would also like her to cry less, ie if she really has hurt herself, or is genuinely upset, not just for attention etc. We genuinely believe that she gets a lot of attention from us and always has done (she was an only child until 3.5 and one of us was at home with her full time until the age of 3) and so we struggle to understand why she does this (and always has done, ie even before her sister was born, so it’s not just in response to that). Would love any suggestions on what we can do to deal with this better and help her deal with what are clearly quite overwhelming emotions for her a lot of the time. Thanks

  27. I love this SO much. It’s easy to fall into that trap of wanting kids to be happy all the time, but I’M not happy all the time. And being 4, like my daughter is, is HARD. I’d be frustrated, too.

  28. Very interesting… I enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

  29. I totally get this article – the opportunities to teach children their feelings are OK to feel come every day, and many parents dismiss the cries that are very real emotions.

    I was sad to hear a father say to his crying two year old son the other day: “Be a man – are you crying like a baby?” Makes me want to comfort that child and tell them it’s OK to cry sometimes.

  30. Nothing improves life more than a Positive Mental Attitude, or a PMA. Your PMA shows on your face and in your eyes. Nothing is better than to greet every new day with a smile and a PMA. Nothing will help you to overcome problems more. So, you can keep your sour and dour expression. Personally, I would rather throw mine in the trash can where it belongs. Yes, authenticity is great. You should be authentically positive and uplifting to others.

    1. Harv, are you suggesting there are only two kinds of expressions: smiling vs. sour or dour? And are there only two ways to feel as well? Such limited thinking! We foster a genuinely positive mental attitude by encouraging our children (and ourselves) to feel ALL of our feelings. Not by limiting our range to smiling vs. sour and dour.

  31. Hi Janet, sometimes I like to try to get my son laughing when he’s upset as a way of teaching him how to handle his stress with humor. I don’t do it in a way that invalidates his feelings (or at least I don’t think I do!).

    For example, if he is crying and upset because he wants apple slices and there are no apples left, then I might scratch my head and say, “Hmmm… somebody must have eaten all those apples, I wonder who would do such a thing…” and I will slowly look around the room like I am trying to find the culprit. At this point, he usually will start laughing and then we can make plans about when we will go to the store to buy more.

    Do you think that there is a difference between pressuring our children to put on a happy face versus teaching them coping methods through humor? The last thing I want to do is make him feel that his feelings are not important.

    1. This sounds sweet, Ali. It works and isn’t invalidating because it’s your personality and humor coming through, not an expression of your own discomfort. That’s the gauge… asking ourselves, “Am I uncomfortable and wanting this to stop?”

  32. I see a lot of entitled kids who think only of their own feelings and are totally disengaged when it comes to their impact on others, including their parents. Should kids have to learn how to handle tough feelings without having people indulge them constantly? Maybe. Consider how well they are likely to fit into the world of work, school etc if they only focus on their own feelings and give no thought to their impact on other people? Nice to be true to oneself, but I don’t think that means being constantly indulged when upset. That doesn’t promote self awareness at all. Maybe learning to walk away and process things then learning how to problem solve interpersonal issues isn’t a bad approach. Watching parents trying to “reason with” their 4 years olds who are “upset” in the grocery store always seems a little sad and comical to me. Maybe it’s time for parents to be the grown ups instead of constantly placating and “being considerate” when it comes to kids’ bad behavior in public. Validate the kids’ feelings yes, but ask them to stop if they are displaying their feelings in inappropriate places. Maybe a “we’ll discuss this at home” isn’t a bad message. Learning that there is a time and place for everything is something we all need to learn.

    1. You obviously didn’t read carefully or simply don’t understand the concepts in this post. This isn’t about indulging children to keep them happy. This is the exact opposite… welcoming children to be unhappy, which, guess what? teaches them how to be unhappy and “handle tough feelings”. A parent’s discomfort with children’s unhappiness teaches them that it’s not okay to be unhappy, which can lead to problems later in life.

      Please, save your lectures for subjects you comprehend, at least a little bit.

  33. The story you shared at the beginning breaks my heart. It sounds abusive. My son often adopts a “serious” and contemplative look and has since he was born. To me it looks like he is really just taking everything in and processing everything around him. I love his thoughtfulness. People are always commenting on it and saying that he is in a “bad mood” or saying he is so “serious.” It really grates on me. C’mon, people: my son is not here to entertain and make you happy, so back off.

  34. Love this post Janet. It is particularly annoying when friends or family try to jolly my sensitive little boy out of something or distract him from a problem he’s trying to work through. If only people could give kids space to work through their emotions until asked for help!
    We’re all so rushed, it seems we don’t have time to indulge in anything that isn’t happy in our kids.

  35. Wow I’m impressed with how engaged you are with this blog, Janet. Such a valued resource for me.
    This post makes me wonder what level of authenticity I can really give my kids when I feel like crying for personal reasons, depression, hormones, whatever. I want to be a model of mature adulthood, but today I think I was kind of triggered by a social situation and felt like a child in my reaction. Dwelling on this situation, while alone with my kids on a small playground, with inner negative self-talk haunting me, I started to cry. I wasn’t exactly letting it all out and I wasn’t exactly hiding it. My four year old daughter kind of nuzzled me a little, but mostly kind of just gave me space. My almost two year old daughter was just busy playing, I think. I didn’t say anything about it, and I feel like I had to stuff those feelings because I had no one to share with, and I couldn’t cry like my children do, which is certainly what my body wanted to do, but I mean I don’t want to model stuffing sadness and keeping it secret… I don’t know. What do we do with depression, or grief and the like, authentically with young children?

  36. avatar Alexandra says:

    I appreciate this affirmation of what we hope to reinforce with our child. We have had people say of them: “oh they really don’t smile much with people hey?” or “they don’t laugh at things like so-and-so” and it sometimes makes me want to say: “Maybe you aren’t that funny?” Haha.

    I try to remember that my child not smiling on cue hopefully means they are secure and don’t necessarily need that outside affirmation.

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