Updated: Sep 12, 2022
The other side of tears
by Philip Mott, FatheringTogether.org
What do we do about the tears of early childhood? Some claim to have found “no cry” solutions to problems like potty training, sleep training, and even instruction once you get to that point. They’ve actually positioned the eradication of tears as a primary selling point. Tears must be big business. I can vouch for the anxiety-tears can cause, though. Too often, the focus is put on avoiding tears when I think it’s better to focus on understanding tears.
I mean, if tear-free is the right way, what does that make the parent of the baby who cries? If you’re asking me, then it means I’ve failed and continue to fail. Because my kids cry often. And just as often, I feel as if it’s my fault. But, regardless of how you feel when the tears come, I hope I can ways to help you get through them. There is a rich world, and I would even call it a richer learning environment once the tears are over. I simply call it the other side of tears.
Crying is Often a Sign of Trust
One of the toughest things about a child’s tears is that we often interpret them as a reflection of our own failures. We think if we could do things just right, the tears would never come. So tears feel to us like an attack, an indictment of our lack of skill. This assumption is not helpful. It’s noon and I’ve heard all three of my children cry at least once today. I think it was Janet Lansbury’s writing that first impressed on me that crying was also an expression of trust. It’s as if my toddler is asking, “Can you handle me like this?” It’s been a very helpful perspective for me to consider. It helps me retain some of my calmness in the moment.
In my most patient moments, I’ve even felt grateful that they’re sharing their big emotions with me. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, though. But I’m still learning.
Crying Helps Build Connection
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus about why humans cry, except that crying does seem to help us build better relationships with others. Something about hearing our baby cry makes us want to pick them up and help them feel comforted. Less so when we’re running on 30 minutes of sleep over two days, but the pull is still strong. If you think about who your closest friends are I would guess they are the people you’ve shared tears with. Part of the way our children build a connection to us is by expressing their emotions fully. Although this makes me also wonder how important it might be for us to be expressing our emotions fully to them. Certainly, this could help them relate to us more too.
Crying is Not the Problem
Tom Hobson, a.k.a. Teacher Tom, often writes, “I’ve learned that the goal is not to ‘finish the cry quickly, but rather to finish it completely.” Hobson has certainly seen his share of tears. He’s worked in a cooperative preschool for over 20 years; just the amount of tears shed when kids get dropped off by their parents would be enough, not to mention the tears that happen when kids intentionally or accidentally hurt each other. The pain, the grief, and the fear or discomfort are the problem.
Once the cry has finished, the smiles quickly return because the grief, the fear, and the pain seem to be gone.
I often say to my kids, “You seem better now.”
“Yeah, I was upset,” our 3-year-old says.
“No kidding,” I think to myself.
The pain is a distant memory after the cry is over. She goes back to what she was doing or finds something new. Sometimes the cry is so exhausting a child will just sit for a while. They sniffle, their body still readjusting until finally, the body calms all the way down. I can physically feel the shift when each of my children is finished crying. They start interacting with their world again instead of detracting from it. Their mind opens and their curiosity is re-lit. I wouldn’t trade anything for those moments when I think about it. We often find something to laugh about again together or we share as big a hug as a toddler can offer. She feels no shame in the aftermath because she knows the tears weren’t the problem; they were just part of the process.
About the Author
Philip Mott is a homeschooling father to three and a monthly contributor to First Time Parent Magazine and FatheringTogether.org.