You see it about to happen. The little kid slips on a toy, and in seemingly slow motion – with no time to intervene – you watch as the tot lands with a thud, a jarred expression, and maybe a bruised knee. You pause for a moment and brace yourself. Will there be waterworks? Screaming and crying? Or maybe the kiddo will pop up and run to the next game, like kids often do, their little resilient selves.
But in that brief pause, during the look of shellshock, you interject “You’re OK!” and hope that a massive meltdown won’t follow.
We’ve all been there: parents, grandparents, babysitters, uncles, teachers, and friends. No one wants a breakdown on their watch, right? So we try to prevent it before it starts, and persuade the kid that he’s just fine!
I argue though, that this tactic, while maaaaybe effective in the short-term, is not helpful for children’s emotional development. And while I don’t think it helps children in general, I also argue that it is even worse for boys.
How to Help Boys Express Feelings in a Natural Way
Parents and family members often want boys to be “tough enough” that they can handle the playground or the sports field, and all the potential spats, insults, and bullying that accompany. After all, society repeatedly reinforces the message that men need to be strong, withstand difficulty, and not show weakness in the face of struggle. In order to become strong men, our boys need to be strong, too. We want them to be able to stand up for themselves.
But being strong and having feelings are two different things.
When we tell our child “you’re ok,” we invalidate his feelings in that moment. Perhaps the tears make us uncomfortable, or we want to “fix” the situation, or we think the tears aren’t necessary.
Parent educator Janet Lansbury has discussed this idea many times. Her books Elevating Child Care (great for parents-to-be or new parents) and No Bad Kids (great for parents of toddlers) have been very helpful to me in this parenting journey. I still use much of her guidance, especially when it comes to handling toddler tantrums. She says it best here:
We all want to raise healthy children with strong coping skills, but a child who is not allowed the opportunity to express his feelings fully, to ride out waves of emotion to the end, does not acquire the basic knowledge that all feelings pass. No matter how horrendous we feel in the trench of the wave, the pain gradually subsides, and we can move on. So, when we are allowed those experiences as children, we gain self-confidence. We still feel the pain of the next wave, but we know it will crest and that we will survive. We can cope. Pain strengthens us.”
Acknowledgement is Key
I’ve tried to do this with my toddler since day one. Even when her tantrum seems absolutely ridiculous to me, and without logic. You’re mad that I gave you the “wrong” bib? It’s just a bib! But her feelings are her feelings. I don’t have to agree with them, but I acknowledge them. It seems like this isn’t the bib you wanted. You sound upset about that. Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge. It actually works wonders. Don’t all we all (adults included) just want to feel like we’ve been heard?
My husband and I have joked that, if I tripped and fell, and he dared to say “you’re ok,” I would be mad as hell! Don’t tell me I’m fine. That freakin’ hurt! And if he waved a shiny bracelet in front of my face to “distract” me from the pain, I’d be equally annoyed.
But if he was the kind of partner who told me I was fine, I might start to question my own feelings of pain. Or pretend they don’t exist. I might become mean or start self-medicating because I’ve had to cover up my feelings so often.
When we tell boys to suppress their feelings, we do them a long-term disservice. Does this world really need more emotionally unavailable men? Kidding! Well, mostly.
But seriously, when we allow our children a moment to acknowledge their feelings, they also will understand that those feelings pass. If we rush to comfort a little girl who tripped, but tell a boy who fell that he’s A-OK, we reinforce outdated gender stereotypes about who men and women should be.