My son is running along the pavement beside me when he trips and falls. He sucks in a breath, pauses and looks around. He has dropped his frog ornament and the foot has broken off of it. He reaches for it, and notices a graze on his knee, and begins to make a noise which shows he is very concerned about this.
All the while, I do nothing.
Well, that is how I imagine it appears to the people passing by. Perhaps they wonder “Why doesn’t she pick him up?” “Why doesn’t she tell him it’s OK?” “Why doesn’t she comfort him? That’s her job!”
But as much as it may seem that I am doing nothing, I am parenting fully and presently in the moment. I am watching. I am waiting. And I am thoroughly in tune with my son.
There are two typical responses to a child falling or hurting themselves that I see over and over again. The first is where the child falls and the parent swoops in telling them “You’re OK, you’re fine, it was just a shock, nothing to cry about, it’s fine, you’re fine!” The child often bursts into tears which are quickly hushed, and a distraction is immediately bought out – a biscuit, a drink, “Oh look at the dog!” The child, hurt or not, is taught very quickly that whatever they are feeling is invalid. “I thought it hurt, but this grown up is telling me it doesn’t?” How confusing!
So what happens? They either learn to keep quiet and toughen up, never letting it slip that they are in pain or upset, learning that crying is an overreaction and not to be tolerated, OR they fight against what they know to be untrue, and cry harder, louder more dramatically until you have no choice but to hear them and validate their emotions!
The second is the well intended caring response. Before the child even hits the ground they are there. “Oh gosh, I saw that, I bet that hurt! Are you OK?” The child, concerned by the attention and worry emitting from their protector, suddenly thinks, “Oh no, maybe I’m not!” “It was a big fall! Oh no, I’m badly hurt aren’t I?” They are frightened and worked up by the parents own fear.
Neither of these responses allow the child to have, and be in control of their own experience. They rob the child of the ability to listen to their own body and react naturally. They force the feelings of the parent on to the child and now, instead of hearing himself and deciding if he is indeed OK or not, he is trusting his parents evaluation of his state of being.
But there is a third option.
So back to the pavement. I am standing, watching subtly and waiting. I know that one of two things will happen. He will either get up and continue on without another word about the fall, or he will need my support and comfort. But it is not up to me to decide which of these he requires. As it happens, on this occasion he was not badly hurt, but he was indeed upset about the graze and worried about how long it would take to heal. He was also sad about the frog’s leg. (Again, this was not up to me to force the feeling on him. It was his toy and it was up to him to decide how he felt about it being broken.) And so, he stood up and tearfully asked for a cuddle to make him feel better. And my arms were open for him as they always are and he always knows. He was empowered. He was the master of his own experience. He got to feel what he was feeling, and decide on what he needed to help him through.
I have always taken this approach with him, ever since he was a tiny baby taking his first crawl across the floor. Every time he has slipped, fallen, rolled onto something hard or broken a toy, I have watched, waited and followed his lead. As much as it may look like ignoring, as much as my not rushing over and swooping in may look like lazy, uncaring parenting, I can assure you that when my baby falls, I feel it deep within me, even when he doesn’t. I feel panic, I feel worry, but I don’t force my feelings and my interpretation of the situation onto him. He has always known that the moment he seeks my comfort, he will find it. I will be there to wipe the tears, to fix the toys, to cuddle as hard and as long as he needs. And through building his trust and providing comfort whenever he asks, but not forcing it on him when he doesn’t, he has learned to really listen to his own body. He doesn’t need to dramatise and wail, making a tiny fall into a enormous disaster. On the other hand, he doesn’t feel any need to hold back his tears and hide his pain when he really is hurt. He experiences his feelings fully, as his own, and my role is to support him through it, calm and ready to do what he needs.
So when you see my child lying on the floor after a fall, and me standing by idle, know that I care. Know that I am parenting my son the best way I know how.
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