A few months ago, I read a blog post about the best parenting advice someone had ever received. The best advice was to not react emotionally when her children get hurt. The author described a child who was seriously injured with a broken nose, but she didn’t get upset. Since Charlotte Mason describes this sort of reaction in Home Education, this article caught my attention. In my four years of parenting (since you become a mom when you get pregnant, right!?) I’ve been that parent, and also the opposite kind of parent. I’ve been the mom who rushes in with hugs, sympathetic words, and a Doc Mcstuffins Band-Aid. But which reaction is best for children? Should we respond with sympathy or indifference?
The Super Empathetic Parent
These parents are concerned with their child’s physical comfort and want them to feel loved. So they offer as much sympathy as they can when their child is injured. They often scoop up their children the second they fall, to let them know that they are there to support them. I was this type of parent until our daughter was about 18 months. It’s difficult not to comfort a little baby when they’re upset!
I stopped this sympathetic approach when Miss H was 18 months old because she started to use injuries, real or imagined, to get my attention. I didn’t want her to get into the habit of searching for my attention and affection through negative forms. Maybe this could lead the way to misbehaving for a reaction, falling for the show of it, etc.
Another problem I see with the super sympathetic parent is that sometimes they use their child’s bumps and falls as an excuse to get in a cuddle. In that case, the sympathy isn’t for the child’s well-being, but for the parent’s.
The Indifferent Parent
At about 18 months, I started looking away when Miss H fell. I didn’t want her to know that I saw her fall. If she knew, she would beg for that sympathy and attention. Most of the time, she wasn’t actually hurt, just startled, and I wanted her to work through it on her own.
Charlotte Mason suggested that mothers and caretakers not react when a child gets hurt. This teaches them to change their thoughts, and not dwell on something painful or unfortunate. The ability to change thoughts is also called will power, which we know is so beneficial. Many adults lack will power, but training children in this skill can help them their whole lives!
A baby falls, gets a bad bump, and cries piteously. The experienced nurse does not “kiss the place to make it well,” or show any pity for the child’s trouble- that would make matters worse; the more she pities, the more the child sobs. She hastens to ‘change his thoughts’, so she says; she carries him to the window to see the horses, gives him his pet picture-book, his dearest toy, and the child pulls himself up in the middle of a sob, though he is really badly hurt. Charlotte Mason, Home Education
If you aren’t familiar with Charlotte Mason, please don’t take a look at this passage and think that hers is a harsh philosophy! No- her philosophy is very concerned with the whole child. This sort of reaction helps develop important skills and habits in the child.
The indifferent parent doesn’t model empathy skills for their children. Empathy is a really important skill for children to learn in order to become successful adults. During this phase of parenting, we tended to react to Miss H with, “You’re fine!” Soon, that phrase came back to us. If I hurt myself, she turned to me and said, “You’re fine!” If I had a problem and asked for it to be resolved, she said, “You’re fine!” Not a super empathetic child! I like this article that explains how parents can help their children build empathy. Indifference isn’t mentioned 🙂
But…it doesn’t have to be one or the other!
The Balanced Parent
I realized that neither of these approaches really worked for Miss H. I decided to search for balance in these reactions. The balanced parent waits to see what their child needs before reacting. When I notice that the injury looks bad, I respond with sympathy. I don’t dote and coddle, I simply say, “That looks like it hurt. Let me see.”
If it’s just a minor bump, I try to divert her thoughts to something else and not react at all.
Sometimes just saying that I saw an incident and that I think she’s okay solves all the fussing about it. Children just need the affirmation that they aren’t severely injured, and hearing that their parent witnessed the event ends that thought in their minds.
I understand Charlotte Mason’s perspective on this. It is important to teach children the way of the will. They need to learn to change their thoughts, and not be slaves to the negative thoughts in their minds. However, Charlotte Mason also mentions how important modeling is. If I constantly model indifference to things that truly pain and affect my children, how will they learn to be kind and caring friends?
The Bottom Line
I think the bottom line here is that we know our kids. We know when they’re actually hurt, or hamming it up. Sometimes they need our hugs and sympathy, and sometimes they need us to model a stoic reaction so the atmosphere isn’t upset.
How do you react when your child gets hurt?