“The heart has such an influence over the understanding that it is worth while to engage it in our interest.” Lord Chesterfield
Today, my 5 year-old son’s balloon is probably the single most important thing in the world to him. Today, my son’s balloon broke.
A year ago, if his balloon had popped, he’d likely cry, find another balloon, say that he’ll get another balloon another day, or move onto something else. Today, I watch him and hold him to keep him and the things and people around him safe as he spends the better part of an hour screaming “no!”, sobbing, punching, and kicking while he grieves his balloon. I can’t imagine what this might look or sound like to anyone watching. Here I am restraining my child so that he doesn’t hurt himself, others, or break something while he mourns the loss of something that is so precious to him. The balloon is not that special to me. Despite keeping my focus on caring for my son, midway through the hour I need a rest and I am grateful that my partner is there to offer respite. My son spends the last moments in his father’s arms sobbing and finds his way to bed for the night.
In the nineteen-twenties and into the seventies, undoubtedly well-intentioned behavioural psychologists advised disciplining babies and children by leaving them alone and telling them what they ought to do. Parents were advised not to pick up their children, let them cry alone, and teach them proper manners using various forms of rewards and punishment if need be.
If my son could have managed his feelings and behave another way, surely he would have done so. Raising four children, I have never been able to coax my children to adapt before they’re ready. As long as my children’s feelings are so compelling to them that they cannot consider anything or anyone else, I figure they are learning how to experience their feelings without interpretation. When most people around them are trying to change them into something else, I believe this is the greatest gift I can give them. My persistence in trying to control their emotions, or mine for that matter, results in frustration and grief. I knew I needed to wait it out and companion him while he moved through his loss.
Fortunately, there are many parents who have either never heard of the behavioural approach or choose a different path. Research and best parenting practices are revealing what those parents have known all along. We cry when our vital physical and emotional needs are not met. The most suitable response then is love.
This may sound ridiculous to some. Am I right?
It’s just a balloon for Pete’s sake! He’s over-reacting.
How will he learn how to cope with life’s bigger challenges if he can’t deal with a deflated balloon?
I don’t have time to sit with him. I have other things and other children to care for.
What if the crying never ends? What if it gets worse?
When I hear these words from my mouth or rattling around in my head, I know I’m feeling tired and stretched. I need to rest. It’s like I’m an elastic band, stretching, about to snap. I forget that I don’t need to fix anything. I forget that it’s not about the balloon but about the loss that my son is feeling. He needs comfort now more than any other time. I evaluate whether I have the stamina to be with my son. Luckily, my partner was there to help that night. That’s not usually the case when I’m homeschooling with the kids most days. That’s not usually the case for many of us even when our partners are physically there because we’re busy holding down two jobs, checking emails or texts, doing chores, catching our favourite TV show, and rushing through dinner so that we can get the kids to scouts on time. Can we squeeze homework in there somewhere? Sometimes, when I’m the only adult and safety is paramount, I reach deep into my reserves to find a place in my heart to weather the storm. I know from experience that it does indeed end.
As parents, we try to be kind and helpful. Helpfulness is allowing others to be, without trying to change their perspective or protecting them from making mistakes. Through our tears, we adapt. As my son learns to feel his loss for his balloon, with practice his pain won’t stimulate panic or fear in him as it does right now. I’ve seen this in my older children. They move from rage to sorrow and tears more quickly. They are learning how natural grief is and how to trust their feelings.
We cannot always fulfill our children’s needs or wants. We cannot always fulfill our own needs or wants. However, we can show how much we value them by our love. By valuing our needs most of the time, we show that they matter. When we show that our needs matter, we show ourselves that we matter. When we matter, with practice we will learn to better take care of ourselves and value others’ too.