One of the phrases that I hear parents use in response to crying, is the seemingly innocent, “You’re okay.” I hear people use it as a way to comfort the child and speed up the realization that they are, in fact, okay. I generally hear it said in rapid succession, “Oh no, you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.” All I really hear is, “Don’t cry, don’t scream, don’t express your emotions.”
There are a few things that bother me about the phrase:
- It’s inaccurate. I’ll go on a limb and say that never in the history of crying has the crier thought they were okay in the moment.
- It’s disingenuous. Most parents have the look on their face that says, “Could you not?
- It’s premature. The phrase is normally offered as soon as the crying starts, which raises questions about its accuracy.
- It’s ineffective. Never have I seen or heard a child say, “Really? I thought I was really upset but you helped me see my mistake.”
I think there are some really productive ways that we can comfort our little ones if our aim is to be accurate, authentic, timely, and effective. These seem like obvious goals as a parent now, but they weren’t so obvious until I reflected on the work of Magda Gerber and William Glasser.
Try assuming that if your child is crying their perception is, “I am not okay right now.” The message you’re trying to send to a child is that you get them. You understand their struggle and you’re there for them. If I tell them they’re okay when they don’t feel okay, it’s like I’m telling them they’re wrong about how they feel. I like to say things like:
“You whacked your head into the wall. That must really hurt!”
“You really wanted to keep that toy. You’re very upset about it!”
“You bumped into your tower and it fell over. You wanted it to stay stacked up!”
If you’re really bothered by the crying then consider just being upfront about it. That’s healthy relationship advice for any age but our kids deserve our honest feelings. How often have you met someone that maybe was a little blunt for your liking but you found their honesty refreshing? I don’t imagine many parents would take this route but I think authenticity matters. If you’re too busy to listen to your child cry it may be time to take a hard look at the way you spend your time and see if you can make time for it.
And, maybe authenticity just comes from a shift in perspective. If you could see how upsetting young life could be, it may be easier to genuinely care when they are upset. It’s difficult to be told no, or to be moved when you don’t want to move, or to break something that you didn’t want to break. I think our children can sense when we don’t care.
The timeliness of our comments can make a difference. If we are just trying to calm a child down then we are likely to say anything we can think of as quickly as possible to get what we want. But a child who is crying or screaming is likely not listening to anything we say. I like to wait a few moments to give them time to process what just happened. Normally I won’t say anything until the crying has stopped. One example is when our oldest used to cry when we left the play area. If I tried to talk to him in the moment he would just wail louder, asking me to not leave, and protesting my need to go do something different. He responded much better when I left, even after the crying started, and then made sure I sat down with him and recognized his frustration after I got back.
To evaluate effectiveness I think we have to know what we want. Do we want the crying to stop or would we like to give our children tools for using other behaviors instead of crying? Crying is a behavior generated from within when a person’s wants are not inline with their perception of reality. The crying is an attempt to correct the reality while our response is often an attempt to correct the perception.
Adults seem to understand that crying is not an effective behavior but that’s as far as we have thought. We don’t look at our behavior through the same lens. So, is telling the child “you’re okay” effective? Is it getting you want you want? I’ve been working to make my communication accurate, authentic, and timely with my children for the last two and a half years my children, currently 4 and 2 years old rarely tantrum, fight, give up, or even cry. They’re fully allowed to do those things, except physically fight, and I’ve made no attempt to shame them when they do. I make my speech accurate, authentic, and timely. Then I spend time thinking about how effective I am at growing citizens. I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s my best skill. I wish I could do half the things in life as good as I do this.
And finally, if you feel you must reassure your child with a phrase that contains “okay” in it, consider using one of my favorites. I wait until the crying is over, I look them in the eye, and say, “I think you’re okay now.” That phrase seems more accurate, shows that you care and recognize some of their ability to deal with pain, and gives them some time to get over the worst of it.