Ten Reasons to Respond to a Crying Child
by Jan Hunt
1. A baby's first attempts to communicate cannot be in words, but can only be nonverbal. She cannot put happy feelings into words, but she can smile. She cannot put sad or angry feelings into words, but she can cry. If her smiles receive a response, but crying is ignored, she can receive the harmful message that she is loved and cared for only when she is happy. Children who continue to get this message through the years cannot feel truly loved and fully accepted.
2. If a child's attempts to communicate sadness or anger are routinely ignored, he cannot learn how to express those feelings in words. Crying must receive an appropriate and positive response so that the child sees that all of his feelings are accepted. If his feelings are not accepted, and crying is ignored or punished, he receives the message that sadness and anger are unacceptable, no matter how they are expressed. It is impossible for a child to understand that expression of sadness or anger might be accepted in appropriate words once he is older and able to use those words. A child can only communicate in ways available to him at a given time; a child can only accomplish what he has had a chance to learn. Every child is doing his best, according to his age, experience, and present circumstances. It is surely unfair to punish a child for not doing more than he can do!
3. A child who has been given the message that her parents will only respond to her when she is "good" will begin to hide "bad" behavior and "bad" feelings from others, and even from herself. She may become an adult who submerges "bad" emotions and is unable to communicate the full range of human feelings. Indeed, there are many adults who find it difficult to express anger, sadness, or other "bad" feelings in an appropriate way.
4. Anger that cannot be expressed in early childhood does not simply disappear. It becomes repressed and builds up over the years, until the child is unable to contain it any longer, and is old enough to have lost his fear of physical punishment. When this container of anger is finally thrown open, the parents can be shocked and perplexed. They have forgotten the hundreds or thousands of moments of frustration which have been filling this container over the years. The psychological principle that "frustration leads to aggression" is never more clearly seen than in the final rebellion of a teenager. Parents should be helped to understand how frustrating it can be for a child to feel "invisible" when crying is ignored, or to feel helpless and discouraged when his attempts to express his needs and feelings are ignored or punished.
5. We are all born knowing that each and every feeling we have is legitimate. We gradually lose that belief if only our "good" side brings a positive response. This is a tragedy, because it is only when we fully accept ourselves and others, regardless of mistakes, that we can have truly loving relationships. If we are not fully loved and accepted in childhood, we may never learn how that feels or how to communicate that acceptance to others, no matter how much therapy or reading or thinking we may do. How much easier our lives would be if we had simply received unconditional love from birth!
6. Parents wondering whether to respond to crying might give some thought to their own responses in similar situations. Parents may consider it appropriate to ignore a child's cries, yet feel intensely angry if their partner ignores attempts to have a conversation. Many in our society seem to believe that a person must be a certain age before he has the right to be heard. Yet what age would that be? Infants and children are not any less a person just because they are small and helpless. If anything, the more helpless someone is, the more they deserve to have our compassion. attention, and assistance.
7. If children are taught by example that helpless persons deserve to be ignored, they can lose the compassion for others that all humans are born with. If, as helpless infants, their cries are ignored, they begin to believe that this is the appropriate response to those who are weaker than themselves, and that "might makes right". Without compassion, the stage is set for later difficulties or even violence. Those who wonder why a violent criminal had no compassion for his victims need to consider where and when he lost that compassion. Compassion is there at birth, and does not disappear overnight. It is stolen, through unresponsive or punitive treatment, drop by drop, until it is gone. Loss of compassion is the greatest tragedy that can befall a child.
8. When a child learns by her parents' example that it is appropriate to ignore a child's cries, she will naturally treat her own child the same way, unless there is some intervention from others. Inadequate parenting continues through the generations until new experiences come about to change this pattern. How much easier it is for a parent to have learned in childhood how to treat his or her own child! Perhaps the cycle of inadequate parenting can begin to change when bystanders no longer walk past an anguished child without stopping to help. This may be the first time the child has been given the message that her feelings are legitimate and important, and this critical message may be remembered later when she herself has a child.
9. Crying is a signal provided by nature that is meant to disturb the parents so that the child's needs will be met. Ignoring a child's cries is like ignoring the warning signal of a smoke detector because we find it disturbing. This signal is meant to disturb us so that we can attend to an important matter. Only a deaf person would ignore a smoke detector, yet many parents turn a deaf ear to a child's cries. Crying, like the loud detector sound, is meant to capture our attention so that we can attend to the important needs of the child. It just makes no sense to think that nature would have provided all children with a routinely used signal that serves no good purpose.
10. Parents who respond only to "good" behavior may believe they are training the child to
behave "better". Yet they themselves feel most like cooperating with those who treat them with
kindness. It is as though children are seen as a different species, operating on different principles of
behavior. This makes no sense, because it would be impossible to identify a moment when the child suddenly
changes to "adult" operating principles. The truth is much simpler: children are human beings who
behave on the same principles as all other human beings. Like the rest of us, they respond best to kindness,
patience and understanding. Parents wondering why a child is "misbehaving" might stop and ask
themselves this question: "Do I feel like cooperating when someone treats me well, or when someone treats
me the way I have just treated my child?"
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling by email worldwide, with a focus on parenting, unschooling, and personal matters. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
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