When I hear a baby or toddler cry I feel a change in myself. It maybe a feeling of panic, an intense feeling to save the child or one of frustration (ugh I just gave you a piece of pear and you threw it on the floor! Now you’re crying because you want it back). Crying is supposed to be an irritant; it is supposed to perk up the ears of an adult. Crying is a baby’s language and a toddler’s means of communication until they find the words they need to explain their feelings. Deborah Solomon states, “A baby’s cry can stir something deep within us. It may touch some unmet need lingering from our childhood or make us feel anxious that we haven’t a clue what to do” (41). So when adults walk over, pick up a child who is crying and say “you’re okay” who are they really saying this to? Is this statement for the adult and the child, or one or the other? And who does it help? I believe that we have the greatest intention of helping a crying child when tell them “you’re okay” but is saying this to a child who is clearly not okay at all helpful?
This story is a little embarrassing but it needs to be shared. One day my boyfriend was leaving the house and I was really upset (for a reason I can’t remember, so it clearly wasn’t important but at the time it was). I was in the middle of balling my eyes out and he said to me “you’re fine.” I stopped crying and stared at him for a second and then started crying even harder. At this point I wasn’t even upset about the original thing that set me off, I was angry because I clearly was not fine and what I really wanted was to finish crying and get a hug. I know that when I cry I need to get it all out and when it is over I will feel much better. If this process is interrupted then the following days could be filled with tears until my body feels satisfied with the amount of crying I have done. This experience taught me what it feels like to not have my feelings acknowledged and my crying attempted to be stopped when I was not ready to be done.
“The question is, does an infant have a right to cry? Should an infant be allowed to express her feelings and communicate them?” (Gerber 50). When we say “you’re okay” and we try to stop a child from crying we are taking away their right to cry and we take away their form of communication. Each child has a right to feel any emotion, positive or negative, and going through the complete cycle of the emotion. Do we really want to rob children of these rights? So what should we do in these moments where we don’t understand why a child is crying, we are starting to get annoyed and all we can think of is to say “you’re okay?”
I think we should first take a breath and say to ourselves “you’re okay.” We so badly want the crying child to be okay but in reality we have to be okay with the crying that the child is doing. Then we have to think about what is our job as the adult. “Do not just try to stop the crying. Respect the child’s right to express his feeling or moods” (Gerber 41) but how do we do this? “Respond to your baby by letting him know that you are there and that you care.” (Gerber 41) Start by narrating “what you observe, without making assumptions or judgments” (Solomon 29). If a child is upset because a play object was taken from them we can say “you were holding that baby doll and now Jessica has it. You are upset, you really want it.” Solomon says “using words to mirror your children’s emotional state back to him lets him know that he has been seen and understood, and can provide comfort to him” (29). By responding to a child who is crying in this manor we acknowledge how they are feeling, we respect their emotions and are letting them know that it is okay to feel this way. Then we wait, if you think the child would like a hug or to sit in your lap you can offer that but, respect the choice they make. Then we wait some more and we keep on waiting until the child goes through the complete cycle of the emotion, respecting the time and space they need to complete it.
In these moments where we just want to pick up a crying child and say “you’re okay” we have to remember that “babies have a right to cry and feel what they feel with the knowledge that a kindly adult is there to help if possible” (Gerber 73). It is our job to be that kind, respectful adult.
Gerber, Magda, edited by Joan Weaver. Dear parents: Caring for infants with respect. 2nd/Expanded Edition ed. Los Angeles: Recourses for Infant Educarers, 2002. Print.
Solomon, Deborah Carlisle. Baby knows best: raising a confident and resourceful child, the RIE Way. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.