I think most of us would agree that if our child was physically hurt and crying, we would provide comfort. And if our child expressed emotional pain through crying — especially if it was in a non-whiny way — almost all of us would rush to offer soothing. But after that, things get a little gray for most parents.
What if your child seems to be “fake-crying” about something? What if your child is rage-crying and insulting or hurting others around them? What if your child is crying and making a scene in public? What if your child is crying just because they didn’t get what they wanted? What if your child is crying for the 80th time today, and it’s getting on your very last nerve?
Obviously, if your child is being disruptive in an inappropriate setting, or if your child is a danger to anyone around them, the crying — and most importantly, the behavior that goes along with it — needs to addressed. But save for these situations, I believe it is my job as a parent to comfort my child anytime they cry, however old they are, and whatever I believe the motivation is behind the crying.
Yup, many of you are going to look at me with mouth agape. However kindhearted you are, you’re probably going to assume that I plan on raising the most self-entitled, spoiled brats ever to walk planet earth.
But that is not my intention at all. In fact, that is not at all how my kids are turning out. I comfort my kids when they cry for one reason: It’s because I believe doing so is critically important to their emotional and psychological development.
It comes down to the fact that children are small beings with very big feelings — feelings they really don’t know how to control (fun fact: the part of kids’ brains that control and regulate emotions aren’t fully developed until they are in their early 20s). And often, crying is the only thing they know how to do when those feelings overwhelm them.
I believe that ignoring, shaming, or silencing a crying child is basically telling them that their feelings don’t matter or are something that they must swallow or hide.
I believe that every child’s feelings — however difficult, annoying, or loud they are — need to be taken seriously. Children should be comforted by the people who matter most in their lives, those who have the greatest power and influence over them, i.e., their parents or parental figures.
And I am not just talking about babies or toddlers. Even when kids are older, they don’t always have the maturity to stop and sort out their feelings. Their feelings can overcome them, and often, these big feelings come out as tears. Sometimes loud, raging, feet-stomping tears. Sometimes whiny, annoying, shrieky tears.
It’s not my job to analyze what kind of sadness, disappointment, or anger they are experiencing. It’s not my place to say whether certain feelings or modes of expression of their feelings are okay or justifiable by me. My job is to listen, accept, and help my child sort out what they are feeling and learn how to process their feelings in an effective way, so they can feel better.
This is not the same as me telling them that their behavior is necessarily acceptable. But crying itself is not misbehavior — it’s a release of emotion and one that deserves respect, however it looks.
So, for example, if my 4-year-old wants a lollipop and I say no (because it’s 7-freaking-o’clock in the morning), and he bursts into tears, I will comfort him. I will help him process what he’s feeling. I will say, “Are you disappointed that I didn’t give you a lollipop?”
Usually, he will nod yes through tears and keep adamantly telling me that he wants — no, needs — one. Maybe he’ll even scream a little if he’s especially cranky. But we will continue to address his feelings, and I won’t punish or shame him for this. He can cry as he sits on my lap, telling me how much he still really, really wants that lollipop. I will help him know that it’s okay for him to feel that way (and it’s understandable because lollipops are freaking delicious).
None of this means that I will give him a lollipop though! Accepting his feelings and comforting him through them is not the same as giving in or coddling. It is not spoiling. It is listening, holding space, being there.
Comforting kids when they cry doesn’t mean that you are allowing them to manipulate a situation to get what they want. What it usually means is that they are able to “get their feelings out” and move on with their day. It means they are learning that you are a person they can trust to help them work out the complicated mix of emotions they hold in their hearts and bodies pretty much all the time.
What I hope for my kids as they get older is that I will continue to be a safe place for them to share and unleash their emotions. It might sound silly, but if I don’t honor my 4-year-old’s disappointment about not getting a lollipop now, how will I know he will want to share his feelings with me about the much more serious disappointments he will experience as he gets older? The lollipop seems so trivial, but it’s certainly not trivial to a preschooler.
If I teach my kids that certain kinds of emotions aren’t acceptable for them to voice, what level of trust or communication am I establishing between us?
Ultimately, when it comes to things like this, each parent has to find a balance that works for them. I’m not in your house on a daily basis, so I don’t know what it looks like for you in terms of comforting (or not comforting) your crying child. I know we are all doing our best and trying to figure all of this out little by little as we go.
But if your instincts have told you to pretty much always comfort your crying child, or if this approach is working for you, do not feel pressure to stop doing this. You’re following your instincts and doing the right thing. And know that you are not raising a “softie,” a “spoiled brat,” or any of those other labels so often slapped on kids who are sensitive or wear their heart on their sleeve.
In my opinion, it’s quite the opposite: You are raising a child who is confident that their feelings — each and every one of them — actually matter, and that there are people in the world whom they can trust to handle those feelings safely and with love.