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Another mystery of childhood revealed!
Why do kids look to see if you're watching before they cry?

My friend and colleague Pam Leo, a parent educator in Maine, explained something to me recently that had always been a mystery. Have you ever seen a child fall on the playground, and then look around to see if anyone saw them fall before they decide whether to cry or not?

Most parents seem to think that these tears must be fake, or manipulative, since the child can turn them off or on, depending on what the response is. If they can hop back up to play if no one rushes over to see if they are OK, or if they look around to make sure you're watching before they break out the sobs, how can the feelings be real? Pam suggests that there is nothing fake or manipulative about this kind of crying, and in fact, that it shows how smart children are about their emotions. Children, she says, know when they need someone to listen to them. If no one acknowledges seeing them fall, they often don't cry, because they know there is no one available to hold them or listen. We all know it is better to cry with a friend (or with Mommy) than to cry alone. On the other hand, if we DO acknowledge seeing them fall, then they will often cry and cry, far in excess of what that fall warranted. That's because now that there is some attention for their feeligns, they are emptying out old stored up hurts along with the current little hurt. Pam told me that she always reminds parents, "it makes it easier to listen to children crying if we can remember THIS IS NOT ONLY ABOUT NOW."

In other words, childrens' tears are always real, and they are always important enough for us to listen to, even if they seem out of line with the tiny injury received. Children often use a little scrape and the fact that we are paying close attention to them, and offering them affection, as an opportunity to let out the feelings that they put aside all day or all week until they were ready to burst. Pam adds that the same basic idea is true for tantrums as well. Usually a tantrum is not only about the little thing we DID see happen, but is the result of an accumulation of little frustrations and disappointments we DIDN'T see happen. At some point a hurt will be the last drop that spills over the whole cup.

So next time your child looks around to see if you are there before bursting into tears, don't just shout out "You're OK" from across the playground, come on over and see if they have any feelings they need to share before they can get back to playing happily.
 

Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

 
Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com