Your baby is learning to stand and obviously thinking seriously about what would happen if she let go of the coffee table and took that first step. Before that can happen, there will be several hard landings on her butt when she let go but didn’t take the step.
Those times when she really does let go but the step doesn’t actually materialize make your heart skip a beat. The landing seems much harder. You want to rush over with your arms extended and ask a question that will likely seem very confusing to her. “Did that hurt?” you ask. Hurt? Was it supposed to hurt or bring tears?
Your toddler will take similar tumbles. He might even get that horrible, ‘What just happened?’ look on his face. It will be especially tempting to ask the same question, “Did that hurt?” I’m recommending that you pass on the temptation.
Creating an expectation about hurt with dramatic overreactions will only compound the problem. There are lots of subtle ways we program our kids’ emotions. We can overreact—and we can under-react. Dr. Michael C. Reichert, a psychologist and author of How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, explains the impact of under reacting. Trying to program our kids’ emotions ignores a young man’s basic human needs, Reichert says. Passing along a quick, “You’re fine!” or some stoic encouragement to “be like a man” actually causes them to shut down. Reichert explains that teaching our boys to shut down can lead to anger, isolation or even disrespectful or destructive behaviors.
One of the phrases Reichert suggests that we employ with our boys especially is, “Hurt people, hurt people.” Hurt people do harm with words or actions because they have been hurt, something Reichert calls “traumatic reenactment.” Explaining that to our boys can help them understand why they’ve been bullied or even ignored. It will still hurt but it might make little more sense.
It would seem that our daughters need that encouragement just as much as our sons. Telling your daughter, “Big girls don’t cry,” doesn’t teach her the words to Frankie Valli’s hit song from the sixties. It tries to program her emotions, something she doesn’t need any more than your son needs.
Rather than promoting the idea that we are empathetic, perceptive parents who can anticipate and predict our child’s every emotion, why not just let them express themselves? A calmer reaction that holds the empathy until it is actually needed bases our relationship on reality rather than expectations. Teach your children that feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. The feeling isn’t the enemy; it’s the choice that sometimes follows the feeling. We can use our hurt to motivate us to hurt others or we can choose to understand or be kind instead. Feelings have consequences and teaching friendship and perseverance is better than programming victimhood.
This may be one of those habits you from your upbringing that you deliberately choose to change. The more we understand about how to communicate and connect with our sons and daughters, the stronger our bonds will be and the better our relationship will be when those turbulent pre-teen years come around.