When my siblings, cousins and I go out to eat with my Grandmother, she takes us out to a nice restaurant. When the restaurant host puts the menus on the table, she always says, “Go ahead and get whatever you want. It’s okay. Don’t worry about the price.” She’s done this my entire life. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense for her to say considering that she was raised during the Depression and started her own family during World War II. Meeting the needs of everyone in the family depended on staying within the budget. Eating out was a luxury, and even when one could afford it, one still ordered modestly to keep the cost of the entire meal reasonable. Though when my grandmother took us out as we grew up, she had attained a certain amount of financial comfort, which is why she wanted us to feel comfortable ordering whatever we wanted on the menu.
Except that her telling me not to worry about the cost had the opposite effect. In the millisecond before she said anything, I’d quickly glance over everything, look for the things that sounded the best, and see if they weren’t things I didn’t usually get to have at home. After she said I could have whatever I wanted, I would immediately get self-conscious; that I shouldn’t order whatever I wanted because my grandmother was already thinking about the bill. Before she said anything, I had no reason to be concerned about the cost, but after she said something, I knew she was concerned about the cost. I felt if I ordered what I really wanted, she would think I was greedy or trying to take advantage of her. And I had to wonder to myself, “Well, why wouldn’t I look at a menu and just order what I wanted? Isn’t that what eating out is for?”
I was thinking about this awkward pas de deux with my grandmother that I faced growing up after what seemed to be the last warm Fall day at the playground, when a girl my son’s age tripped and fell. Her father ran over to her, picked her up and held her as she cried. He rubbed her back, and told her, “You can cry. It’s okay to cry. So if it makes you feel better, go ahead.”
In the grand scheme of things, what he said was the well-intentioned thing to say. It certainly beats the “You’re okay” response which – while trying to reassure the child that they didn’t seriously injure themselves – infers that s/he has no reason to cry or the “it’s okay” response which may in fact be the abbreviated form of “it’s okay to cry” but still suggests to the child that they don’t have any reason to be crying. As we know, if a child is crying, s/he has a reason to be crying, even if it’s a reason we don’t know or understand. For many children (and even adults who get hurt), crying is often the most natural response. It’s not much different than a knee jerk reflex after a doctor hits your knee with a rubber mallet.
Which is why I started wondering, if what the dad was saying to his daughter on the playground had the opposite effect of what he intended. I couldn’t help but wonder, if he was in fact projecting his concerns about crying onto his daughter the way my grandmother had projected her concerns about money onto me. When we say these kinds of things to our children, are they actually then saying to themselves, “Well why wouldn’t it be okay for me to cry after a fall?” the same way I wondered, “Well, why wouldn’t I go ahead and just get what I want?” Is the best form of validating their emotional expression to not say anything at all and instead just be with them and hold them?
I couldn’t help but wonder if we say these things to our children more for our sake than theirs. We want to be good parents. We want our children to feel safe expressing themselves – because honestly, children will express themselves anyway when they have something to express- better it be safely and straightforward in a conversation with us than passive aggressive and potentially dangerous in the world at large.
But the truth is while scientific study after scientific study proves that crying does indeed relieve stress and is better for one’s health in the long run, it’s still not socially acceptable to cry in public. We tell our children it’s okay on the playground, but by kindergarten they’ve already realized it’s not okay really. Most adults cry - when they do cry - in private, and when they do cry in public, they receive predictions about their professional demise. So are we sending our children mixed messages? Or do they get it’s okay when you’re little to cry because a kid kicked you in the head when you didn’t get off the slide fast enough, but it’s not okay when you’re big? I do cry in front of my son. I even tell him why I’m crying and if I’m sad or upset or frustrated. But I too cry at home, not on the playground.
In the meantime, my son told me today that he lost his favorite car to the subway track. I asked if he was sad and if he cried. He said yes. I said I could get it. I’d cry too. He said he wanted a new car to replace the one he lost, and then he went one to play with something else, completely forgetting about the lost car. I realized this is indeed the point of crying in the first place, to release an emotion so we can move to other things. It’s funny, the things you learn from a three year-old. He cries and moves on. He doesn’t make his crying at the subway station mean anything about him and he certainly didn’t wonder what other people thought as he cried about his lost car on the subway track. I hope he keeps this freedom of expression as he grows up.