Parenting Advice Column
|Subject: Dad praises son for not crying
My youngest of three children has had to begin attending a sitter as my wife has returned to work after being home with him for the last 3½ years. The sitter is the wife of a friend and only has her two children and mine. I feel very comfortable where he is, but there was a problem. After being home with since birth the drop off was hard on him. He cried every day. I knew that children his age didn't have the ability to understand that mom was coming back to get him. I struggled for about two weeks trying to think of a way to get him to stop crying when he was left in morning. I knew he liked his sitter and their children, because he talked about them and what they do all the time.
One Sunday, about a week ago, I was trying to prepare him for Monday morning's event. I asked, "Do you like Kelly?" The answer was yes. "Do you like Thomas and Torry?" Once again the answer was yes. Then I got hit by a lightning bolt. "James," I said, "Do you know what would make daddy really proud of you? If you don't cry when you go to Kelly's tomorrow, I will proud of the way you are becoming a big boy."
When I got home from work and coaching the next day my wife and son had an announcement to make to me. "Tell daddy how many tears you cried today when you went to Kelly's," my wife said. "ZERO!" said James with the biggest smile on his face. I picked him up and gave him a great big hug and kiss. I was so excited that I wanted to get him something as a reward. But then I thought again; He's still young and I don't want him to start looking for rewards for everything he does. I decided that his reward, if he doesn't cry anymore, is to help his big brother go out and get the mail every day.
This is the second week and we are still tearless on that morning trip.
Thank you for writing and for visiting the Natural Child Project site.
I applaud your efforts to find a creative solution to this situation. It can be difficult for parents to think of creative solutions when they see no alternative to something that is causing unhappiness for their child, such as your wife's return to work.
At the same time, it seems unfortunate that, perhaps unintentionally, a child is being given the message that crying is to be withheld in order to gain a parent's approval, instead of having his reasons for crying (in this case, his natural desire to stay with his mother) fully validated and dealt with more directly. It is only natural that a young child will find it difficult to deal with lengthy separations that started suddenly when his mother started a new job. Even if he "likes" his caretakers, he obviously misses his mother deeply. This is normal, and in fact shows a healthy bonding.
If it is at all possible to rethink this situation and perhaps postpone - or reduce - the mother's work until your son is truly ready, I urge you to consider this. These days there are more opportunities for mothers to work at home than ever before.
Whenever we change a behavior without dealing directly with the underlying cause, we accomplish little of lasting value, because the original problem that brought the tears is still there, though buried. We may have accomplished a surface, short-term goal, but long-term, an even more difficult situation may arise. Crying is a vital release (there is a vast difference in chemistry between emotional tears and the tears shed when slicing an onion, for example) and should always be allowed, with understanding and comforting.
Even better, we should always strive to prevent the tears by meeting the child's needs as well as we can. When we are unable to do that, we can at least accept the child's feelings and expression of those feelings. It's hard enough for a child to deal with a frustrating turn of events, but to have to deal with it without the benefit of an emotional release only adds to his sense of helplessness and frustration. Buried feelings, because of their very nature, can be easily overlooked in these cases, and can give a false picture of the child's true state.
Tears are significant both as an emotional release and also as a signal to the parents that an important matter needs to be addressed. Ignoring or "training away" crying instead of dealing with the underlying feelings is like putting soundproofing on a smoke detector, instead of looking for the fire and dealing with it. Training a child by rewards or praise not to cry only means that he is learning to withhold the underlying emotion and to label his feelings as "good" or "bad". Feelings are neither good nor bad, they are natural, human, and legitimate, and should always be treated with understanding, respect, compassion, and an attempt to help the child come to terms directly with the situation that brought the tears, and an attempt to change the situation when possible.
I know you mean well, and your primary desire is for your son's happiness. Still, there is a big difference between a child who has stopped crying because his needs have been met and his feelings have been validated, and a child who has stopped crying in order to please us. At the same time, it can be difficult for us to recognize the importance of these issues, particularly if our own emotions were not validated in childhood.
Having a "tearless" child is a natural desire on the part of parents, but it is not necessarily the wisest goal for us to have. Our society already has far too many men - and women - who, because of their childhood experiences, find it difficult to recognize and accept their own emotions, and consequently find it difficult to accept and comfort the emotions of others. Many adults have found it necessary to seek the help of a counselor in order to recognize and accept many important feelings that were buried in childhood. In this sense, "a stitch in time" truly does "save nine"
For specific suggestions on dealing directly and effectively with a child's emotional responses, I recommend these articles:
You are very wise to say you don't want your child to "start looking for rewards for everything" he does. There is probably no more important area to remind ourselves of the dangers of using rewards for changing behavior, than in this critical area of emotional expression.