My mom tells a story from her childhood that always makes us laugh because it perfectly captures my grandma in caricature. As a young child (eight or nine years old), my mom was out playing in the snow and ice with other neighborhood children on a winter’s day. As would have been the case more often than not in that era, the children were out playing on their own, unsupervised by adults. My grandma received a phone call from a neighbor who lived directly across from the hill where the children were playing. “Ruth,” she asked my grandmother, “can you see what the kids are doing?!” My grandma took a sip of coffee and a drag of her cigarette and responded, “No, my garage is in the way.” She missed seeing my mom plummet down the ice-covered hill on skates and she didn’t glance up when she came crying into the house soon afterwards. “What’s the matter with you?” she called out. “I fell. I’m bleeding,” my mom cried. “Go put a band-aid on it!” my grandma told her. She found my mom later, in front of the bathroom mirror, attempting to patch her face, scraped raw by the ice, with dozens of band-aids.
This is not the only family story wherein the punchline is, “Go put a band-aid on it!” Family and friends of that generation still compare notes on decades-old injuries that healed improperly. It gives them character.
Many of the parents I encounter these days are working to instill a similar spirit of toughness and resiliency in their children. There has been some debate for several years regarding how best to respond when a child is hurt. Parents have been cautioned not to “over-react” to minor injuries, as this could result in their children becoming overly sensitive, overly dramatic, or prone to exaggerating their hurts in a bid for unwarranted attention. (That reminds me of a quote I came across this past week: “I’m always amazed when adults say that children ‘just did that to get attention’. Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them?” ― Lawrence J. Cohen)
In general, when a young child (infant or toddler) bumps their head, they are going to look to the nearest adult for their response to this novel or uncomfortable experience. This is part of their scientific process in response to something surprising happening to them, as well as their separation from co-regulating to self-regulating. They are processing the experience and looking for cues on how to cope with it. When they see their caregiver’s face express alarm or distress, odds are good that they will mirror that response. Many parents have gone to another extreme, either ignoring the bump altogether or saying things like, “You’re okay, don’t cry.” You may have already guessed that while I’m not in favor of dramatizing minor injuries, I’m not on board with undermining the real experience of getting hurt. When I bump my head, I usually wince, rub the spot, and say, “Ouch!” (One of my co-workers sometimes says, “Bad words! Bad words! Bad words!”) Because it hurts! Sure, I don’t need to call for a medic or an ambulance, but it hurts. Why deny it? I think there is value in modeling for children that feelings can be articulated and lived with. When we talk about how to deal with pain, we are laying a very important foundation for empathy. When we tell children that what they are feeling is not real and should be ignored, what are we really telling them? (They will need to sort that out with a therapist later on.)
Last night my husband and I were at the local mall and we saw a preschooler running ahead of her mom trip and fall, skidding lightly across the brick walkway. She quickly bounced to her feet but her face began to crumble. Her mom said loudly and cheerfully, “Good job! Wow, good job falling! You’re so good at falling down!” The little girl’s face reflected all of the confusion that I felt, as an observer, and she bent down to examine her skinned knee, crying quietly, then ran to catch up with her mom who was walking off ahead.
It’s interesting to see the strategies caregivers will employ to keep children from crying, as if trying to trick them into being “okay”. Is false cheerfulness in the face of potential pain preferable to a few tears? Or giving someone a hug? I wonder what it is we’re trying to avoid.