It was the first day of a new session of swimming lessons, and the girl next to my smiling daughter was screaming. Not just crying, but screaming. She was petrified, literally shaking from head to toe, calling out for her mother in between gasps. When her mother approached her, I at first thought she was there to do what I would have done: scoop her daughter up, hold her close, and tell her that she didn’t have to get in the water. But what she did instead was clamp her hand over the girl’s mouth to muffle her cries. She said something to her that I couldn’t make out, then went back to her chair on the deck. The girl finished the class, screaming with the same intensity the entire time.
This happened two weeks ago, and I’ve thought of it frequently since. And while it would be easy and convenient for me to blame the mother, the fact is it’s only partly her fault. Her child’s whole life she’s likely been told – by everyone from pediatricians to the media to well-meaning friends and relatives – that it’s important for her baby to separate, that she shouldn’t be so dependent, that she needs to be strong, that letting her cry would ultimately be good for her.
That mom has been lied to.
We’ve all been lied to.
Have you ever heard someone say (or perhaps you’ve said it yourself) “Oh, it broke my heart to hear her cry, but…” or “I hated listening to his screams, but…” and then go on to tell you why it was so important that the swim class be completed, or that day camp be attended, or that dental cleaning be performed? We have those gut feelings for a reason. They’re there to tell us to listen. As parents, we are biologically designed to respond to our children’s cries, not ignore them. It doesn’t feel right to hear our children cry and not attend to them, because it’s not. Yet somewhere along the way, someone decided that we should ignore our intuition, and ignore their cries. And society bought it. It’s the only way I can explain the fact that when I shared the story of the little girl in swim class, that while everyone agreed that the hand clamped over the mouth was not a nice thing to do, many didn’t seem to have an issue with a child screaming her way through the duration of the class.
“She’ll get used to it.”
“It’s a safety issue. Learning to swim is important”
“Lots of kids cry in the beginning.”
That’s society talking. And society lies. ‘
Will she get used to it? Maybe, maybe not. But is taking that chance really worth the damage it’s doing to your relationship with your child, who now knows you won’t always be there when she cries?
Is it a safety issue; must she really learn to swim? If she’s going to be around pools, of course. But there are other classes. Other teachers. Other methods. There is the simple option of waiting a couple of months to try again (a couple of months can make a huge difference in the readiness level of a toddler!) There is the option of helping her learn yourself, in her own time, in her own way.
Do lots of kids cry in the beginning? Sadly, yes… something I can surely attest to after watching 4+ weeks of classes now. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It happens because too many people have been conditioned to listen to a falsehood, to ignore their intuition, and to ignore their child’s cries.
What children need – what all of us need – is connection. Compassion. To feel like we are heard. We do not need to be separated from our parents, the people who love us most, from the moment we are born. We do not need to be banished to another room, forced to cry-it-out, “trained” to sleep through the night, ignored when we call for help. To do so is to go against our very nature as caring, nurturing adults. We are meant to respond to our children’s cries, not ignore them… whether they’re crying because they’re lonely, sad, hungry, or scared. Whether they’re crying because they’re not ready for swim lessons, unsure about the dentist chair, not wanting to get their hair brushed, or suddenly fearful of their car seat.
But wait, wait, you’re thinking, isn’t it inconvenient to find a different swim class? To brainstorm with the dentist, or to go to another one? To get creative, or adjust your standards, when it comes to tangles? To take the time to let your child regain his comfort in the car seat, even if it means staying at home for awhile? Is it really that big a deal? Yes, it really is that big a deal. Your child is that big a deal. Your relationship with your child is that big a deal. And you know what? Sometimes taking the time to listen to your child’s cries and coming up with a respectful solution is inconvenient. But no one ever said parenting was supposed to be convenient. And to be really blunt about it, what’s more important: your relationship with your child, or convenience? It’s not a matter of “picking your battles” either. You and your child are partners. You’re on the same team. Parenting should not be a battle.
Lastly, to get back to that title: Is is ever okay to let your child cry? Of course. Just like their adult counterparts, sometimes children need to cry. They’ll cry out of anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment. Fear, exhaustion, pain, and overwhelm. Sometimes our job as parents is to just be there, to listen, to hold them if they want to be held, and to let them cry if they need to cry.
To make sure they know – beyond any shadow of a doubt – that their needs are real and that we, as their parents, will respect them.
This post was written as part of a joint project called Listen To Our Babies, Heal Our Nation. Be sure to visit our website to read more contributions from dozens of bloggers, parents, professionals, and concerned citizens.