A few months back, I had a conversation with my 5-year-old son that was so tender, sensitive and mature that it made me both extremely proud of the person he is becoming and rather humbled by the fresh awareness it gave me of the awesome responsibility of raising a healthy, balanced human being.
It happened back when we were still in the throes of what I can only hope will be our most difficult move. We were stuck in Jackson trying to sell the house and pack up for the move. Daddy had been gone in Austin for nearly 3 months and, although Aiden was old enough to understand somewhat, he still hadn’t developed the right boxes with which to categorize his emotions. I know he felt abandoned, confused, angry, sad – all mixed in with his normal everyday happy. The world around him, as he’d always known it, was changing. Everything familiar that he loved was being crammed into boxes and stacked against walls. His preschool year was over and he was transferred, temporarily to a new day care until the house sold. His Mama, who was his lifeline, was stressed out of her mind and barely holding it together. And our daily face time conversations with Daddy, although important for maintaining connection, only seemed to dredge up these emotions and bring them to the surface. Sometimes he was so excited to tell Daddy something about his day, only to see his face and clam up and withdraw.
It was after one such conversation that Aiden disappeared into his room. Being somewhat introverted, he often does this to take some time to himself. But when I checked on him a little while later, he was crying. I went to him and quietly scooped him into my arms. He weightily sank into the embrace and shook as he cried. It took everything in me not to try, again, to “fix” it and tell him all the reasons it was really okay and he didn’t need to be sad and… blah… blah… blah. But I held my tongue and held my son and let him cry. Then, without someone talking over his emotions, or trying to explain them away, he filled the silence himself –
Aiden: “Hey, Mama, sometimes when I’m sad, I just go to my room and close the door really quiet so no one will hear and climb in my bed with a toy. And I just cry while I hold the toy.”
Me: “Does that help you feel better?”
Me: “Does it help you feel better to hold me instead of a toy?”
Aiden (nodding meekly): “A little. But sometimes I still feel sad.”
Me: “That’s okay, buddy. It’s okay to feel sad and to cry. And it’s okay to need help working through it. You just have to ask me and I will hold you while you cry. And if you don’t want to talk about it, just tell me and I will hold you quietly.”
Aiden: “Okay… Hey, Mama… I love you.”
Me: “I love you too sweet man!”
Sometimes kids just need to cry and know that it is okay – that they are still loved and accepted.
One of the most achingly poignant parts of this conversation was the revelation that he tries to hide when he’s sad, closing the door really quietly so no one will hear him. But, craving embrace, he holds a toy, which he readily admitted doesn’t help. How often do we, as parents, label every emotion that our kids can’t control as “bad”? Every episode of crying as a “fit”? Every poor expression of frustration as a “tantrum”? And our response to these immature expressions of emotion is, too often, to send them to their rooms to deal with it… alone. There is better way. We need to teach them that what they’re feeling is okay, that we understand it even if we don’t like its expression, and that there are healthier ways to express even the worst emotions. That it is okay to take time to yourself if you want it, but it is also okay to ask to be held and even to ask that we not talk about it if crying quietly in the safety of love is all you need in that moment. In this way, we will avoid teaching our children to bottle up emotions, seal them tightly with a cork, and wait for the pressure to get so great that it one day explodes. I have experienced the explosion, and I’d rather not lead my children down that road.
I am so thankful for a son who teaches me how to be a good mother while I teach him how to be a good man. I will always cherish this conversation.