When our oldest daughter was born, I always responded to her cries. Any time she became unsettled, I immediately prioritized understanding why she was upset, and then I assisted her with stabilizing her feelings. A lot of people would communicate to me that this was not a good practice and that I was spoiling my child. I ignored them.
Prior to birthing our children into this world, I read a lot of research on happy babies, child development and parenting. Why? Because I believe that wisdom is our greatest teacher.
There are two ways to learn something: you can either be taught in a safe environment, or you can learn on your own accord that may or may not be safe. Funny enough, most experts will tell you that safety is the brains number one priority and without it one has trouble processing any thing else.
For example, have you ever been really hungry and not able to think until you finally ate? This is because without food we cannot survive. Knowing this, our brains shut down to remind us to eat.
In the book, Brain Rules for Babies, brain scientist, John Medina puts it like this:
“If you want a well-educated child, you must create an environment of safety. When the brain’s safety needs are met, it will allow its neurons to moonlight in algebra classes.”
In other words, if one feels unsafe, they have a hard time functioning in this world.
I did not know this information prior to motherhood, but my infant child’s screams were enough to keep me on high alert in response to all her needs. If crying is the only method of communication an infant knows, how could I let my child cry without response? Also, if feeling safe is a requirement for learning, I could not expect my child to advance her communication skills beyond crying if I ignored her.
This brings me to the modern day taboo about crying and being vulnerable. On the one hand we have the “cry it out” parenting method. Then as children mature, we respond to their crying with the infamous or not, “You betta not cry!”
It is my belief, and according to experts in the parenting realm, that ignoring your child’s cries and/or shaming their vulnerability causes more harm than good.
I have heard over and over again this response to crying, “she just wants attention.” The tone of this statement normally implies that attention is something wrong to want and/or have.
But what is crying and what is the need for attention?
”Crying is a natural emotional response to certain feelings, usually sadness and hurt. But then people [also] cry under other circumstances and occasions,” says Stephen Sideroff, PhD, a staff psychologist at Santa Monica–University of California Los Angeles & Orthopedic in the WebMD article titled, “Why We Cry: The Truth About Tearing Up.”
Translation: Crying indicates how we feel, thus the response to our cries indicates how others feel about us. This truth suggests that ignoring the cries of each other births insecurities and unhealthy relationships. It makes sense now that lots of people have a hard time, even as adults, communicating with their feelings. They are use to being ignored and/or falsely pacified. Hint hint: Pacifier…
If we are taught not to cry or share our feelings, then we are simultaneously taught that no one cares about how we feel and that we should pretend as if nothing is wrong with us even though it is.
How, then, do we learn how to relate to one another if we lack the capacity to communicate our own truth? We don’t!
We are taught that if someone is crying, run away and leave them alone to figure it out. Or if someone is crying, blame him or her for making us feel bad. Or if someone is crying, feed him or her. If you are an emotional eater, this is quite possibly what happened to you as a child. Whenever you were upset instead of hugging you and teaching you how to communicate your feelings, they fed you until you fell asleep.
This needs to stop. We have created a culture where not crying means that you are tough, but in reality it means the opposite. Not crying means you lack the courage and ability to be honest about how you feel and to address your discomfort.
As a child we are taught emotional stability or instability from our primary caretakers. I am not pointing fingers. I am just being honest. I know both ends of the spectrum. I was taught not to cry as a child. Then as an adult, I developed anxiety from not being able to properly process my own feelings. Now as a mother, I have learned from my past dysfunction and I am using my wisdom to teach my children otherwise.
Crying is healthy. “It’s a signal you need to address something.” says Jodi DeLuca, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Tampa General Hospital in the WebMD article titled, “Why We Cry: The Truth About Tearing Up.”
I must admit that evolving into a person who embraces vulnerability for the sake of her children’s welfare has not been easy. I have had many internal battles where I question my sanity for being overly sensitive. However, the rewards of my emotional awareness are priceless.
The other night, I found myself crying while watching “Titantic” on cable. When my daughter noticed my demeanor, she immediately came to my aid. First, she climbed into my lap. Then she put my head on her chest, wrapped her arms around me, and patted my back. At that point, my tears then turned into sobs. Funny, I know!
But, the fact that she returned to me the same attentiveness I have struggled to teach her is worth every criticism and doubt I ever plagued myself with over crying.