We are hard-wired to want to protect our children, to care for them and to want to keep them from suffering. When our babies cry, our hearts react, not just poetically but in real, physical responses to the stimuli of an infant in distress. That instinct doesn’t go away just because our children get older.
Infants’ cries, however, often signify basic needs; infants cry for food, warmth, fear, rest or nurture. Those are needs that should be addressed quickly. By responding quickly, we teach our very young children that they are safe in this world and their basic needs will be met. As children grow, however, their sadness can reflect more complicated causes: disappointment, frustration, and a need for control, among others. While the emotions they inspire may be equally challenging to hear, the reaction need not be the same. Avoiding disappointment is not a basic need. Neither is avoiding frustration. Quite the opposite: by preventing these struggles for our children, we do more harm than good.
When we think about children’s sadness in the short-term, we want to allay it. Hearing our children cry or seeing them disappointed can tear us apart. We want their suffering to end. But when we think about the cause of their sadness in the long-term, we may not want to rush in to prevent it. A child who cries because he or she is frustrated may need to develop the persistence to push through frustration. A child who cries because he or she is disappointed may need to develop the resilience to accept that disappointment and move on. In both cases, preventing the child’s sadness by removing the frustration or preventing the disappointment steals from the child the opportunity to learn how to manage those emotions on his own.
Our goal is not to keep our children from all sadness. Our goal is to equip them with the ability to respond to sadness with resilience, persistence and hope, to believe in their own ability to solve problems and to affect change rather than to rely on other people to prevent hardships. We want them to see themselves as capable contributors who can do things on their own and who know that accomplishing challenging tasks sometimes requires hard work. So, do we just ignore the crying child? No. Because just as we want our children to develop the self-efficacy to persevere through challenging situations, we want them to know they are loved and supported as they do.
When your child is sad, ask yourself whether solving the problem is both healthy and within the child’s ability. A child who is frustrated by putting on his or her own socks, for example, may just need more time to complete the task, while a child who is frustrated trying to climb onto the dining room table may not need to be supported in accomplishing that goal! The child who is frustrated by his or her socks would be better supported by a loving adult offering patient company and encouragement as the child struggled through the task than by that same adult putting the child’s socks on. Instead of rushing in to prevent the child from being frustrated, try sitting beside him or her and offering encouraging words. Give specific advice on how to accomplish the task and remind the child that you believe he or she can do the activity independently. Supporting your children by encouraging them lovingly to solve problems on their own may take longer than just solving the problem yourself, but, in the end, you will have done more than just avoid a short-term disappointment. You’ll have nurtured the self-reliant, resilient, and persistent adult that is to come.