Last week, my daughter told me that she only got three pieces of candy from the class piñata.
I was filled with red hot, righteous indignation. Where was her teacher? Why wasn’t he watching? Why didn’t he make sure she got her fair share? Doesn’t he know that Calliope is terrified of the post-piñata-break-scramble for candy?
I wanted to call her teacher immediately and demand an explanation.
Instead, I took a deep breath. I pulled my nine-year-old onto my lap and wrapped my arms around her.
I murmured in her ear, “Oh, honey. That must have been so hard. You poor thing.” I squeezed harder.
It’s terrible to see your baby cry. I hated it. Even though she’s not a baby anymore, she’s still my baby.
There is also a certain physical reaction in new parents that does subside with time. You stop breaking out in a cold sweat, heart pounding, when your baby cries. That does -- mostly -- go away with time.
But there’s a reason that people say, “having a child means choosing to walk around with your heart outside your body.”
It’s a hard, terrible fact of parenting that our children suffer.
It starts with a heel stick in the hospital, then continues to the indignity of car seats, vaccines, holding hands to cross the street, teasing in elementary school, bullying in middle school, college applications in high school and so on.
And if your child is overtired, they cry. And it probably breaks your heart. Of course. You love your child.
But there comes a point where anything you do to help overtiredness starts to make things worse. This may not be immediately obvious. Your help might solve the problem in the moment… but it makes things worse in the long run.
The easiest way to know this is if sleep is overall getting worse despite increasing levels of adult involvement. If this is the case, your “help” is hurting more than it’s helping. Here’s a common example: you used to rock your newborn to sleep and then she would sleep for 4-6 hours, but now she is older and waking up every 45 minutes. You can clearly see that all your "help" is counterproductive.
We all do this from time to time. Me too. I get too involved. It’s human nature to want to spare our little ones all pain. But the truth is that we can’t spare our children pain. And trying to do so will only cause them more pain in the long run. We hear about this with college students whose parents call their professors to complain about bad grades.
It’s better to support and love our children through their pain, instead of trying to solve it for them. This teaches them how to endure increasing levels of discomfort as they grow up. A necessary skill in adulthood. We suffer through hunger pains, traffic lights, fights with our loved ones and yes, sleep deprivation.
Loving and supporting your children through pain might look like spending extra time on the floor with them during playtime and then allowing them to cry in their cribs when they are overtired at nap time. You are welcome to stay in your baby’s room while she cries and puts herself to sleep, if you want to. But she’s crying because she is overtired, not because she needs something from you. Give her the space to figure it out.
Likewise, if your preschooler is protesting bedtime and then throwing a tantrum when you try to turn off the lights, the problem is not your parenting, or turning off the lights, or leaving. The problem is that your child is overtired and needs to go to sleep but fears separation because he is overtired. It's true that most young children fear separation from their parents, but the fear is greatly intensified by exhaustion as well as by lack of practice. The best way to show your child that you will always come back is to… always come back. But always leave when you say you are going to. Be your child’s fearless leader. Let him feel pain… and love him through it. Offer lots of cuddles and high fives for his bravery in the morning.
If you are struggling to let your child cry, you are not alone. It’s hard work. Schedule a free chat and see if some coaching would help you get through the rough spots so that your family can get the rest you deserve.
PS Calliope later explained to me that her "greedy" classmates got... all of 5 pieces of candy. Not dozens, as I had imagined. I am so glad now that I didn't call her teacher to complain!
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.