“The best way out is always through.” – Robert Frost
Think of a time your kid felt hurt. Maybe your kid’s best friend from preschool moved to Japan. Or your kid’s goldfish died. Maybe your kid got picked last for the game at recess. Or whatever. It’s a harsh feeling, knowing that your child is hurting. It makes us feel helpless, fiercely protective and desperate to take away their pain. To make it better for them somehow.
Maybe I can buy her a new toy that will help her forget about her friend moving away.
I could sneak a new goldfish into the bowl… maybe he’ll never know.
I should talk to the school and have them do something about her getting picked last.
It’s totally natural and appropriate to feel that need to protect our children from the hard stuff. But those feelings are about our needs. Let’s think about what our children need from us when they’re hurting. Is it for us to fix it for them? To make it better? Here’s why, in most cases, I think the answer is “no.”
Pain is a part of life. And our job, as parents, is to prepare our kids for life, to send them into the world equipped with the skills they’ll need to thrive. What they’ll need to thrive in a life that will unavoidably involve some amount of pain is the ability to cope with that. When a sad thing happens in the life of a child, that child has a chance to learn some of those skills. How to handle hard feelings in a healthy way. How to talk about and process those feelings. And how to go on.
If we always take away our kids’ pain in their childhood, we’re robbing them of important learning opportunities. We’re sending them into the world empty handed, lacking the perspective and emotional tools they’ll need to cope with the stress, rejection, grief and any number of other hard feelings that are inextricable parts of life. And coping is part of being a happy, healthy, emotionally competent person.
It’s often said about discipline, and wisely so, that it’s better to let kids mess up and learn from the consequences of their mistakes now, while they’re under the relative safety of our roof and supervision, than for them to learn those lessons when they reach adulthood, where the penalties are far more serious and the safety net so much thinner. That idea can be applied to hard feelings also. It’s better for kids to learn how to deal with hard feelings under our loving, supportive supervision than for them to experience hard feelings for the first time out on their own, unsure of any healthy way to cope.
So though our desire to make it better for our kids comes from a place of love, it doesn’t serve them. As good parents, committed to doing what’s best for our kids even when it’s hard, we need to let them have those feelings.
What does this look like in practice? It mostly looks like stepping back and standing by. It’s being authentic with your own emotions and respectfully expecting that they do the same. It’s honoring feelings – not just the fun ones, but the hardest ones too. Seeing grief not as something to cure or numb or hide. It’s never telling your child not to cry. Or that they should “be strong.” It’s watching over your own emotions that come up when you see your child hurting, and it’s making a conscious choice not to step in just because their pain makes you uncomfortable. It’s being available with a hug and maybe a warm drink when your child is sad. And with words like “Do you want to tell me about it?” and “What’s the hardest part?” and “I see you’re really hurting, and I’m here.”
Because friends move away. And pets die. And someone always gets picked last. And because the only way out is through.