(My earliest professional work with children took place in a child care center, working with infants and toddlers. Part of my responsibilities included occasionally contributing to the center’s newsletter. I hung onto my articles, and am including a sampling of the more relevant pieces. Enjoy!)
Toddler Classroom, 2004
Emotions abound in our toddler classroom. At any given moment, there can be shrieks, shouts, laughter, cries, wails, grunts and groans…and that’s just from the teachers! There’s joy and laughter, with children clapping hands in delight at songbook or at their ability to engage a teacher in a game. There’s anger at the loss of a toy to another child, at being taken away from one’s own agenda to get a diaper change, at being sat on by an unaware child. There’s teeth-gnashing (or gum-gnashing) frustration from the toy that rolled all the way under the ramp or the kitchen barrier that just won’t relent to shaking. And there’s sadness. There’s that heartbreaking goodbye at the start of the day or when a favorite caregiver leaves for a break. And those tears can surface many times throughout the day, expressing not only sadness, but also pain, fear, anger, frustration, hunger, exhaustion, anger…and those constant tears can be the hardest to handle.
It is hard to hear our children cry. It is hard to hear any child cry. There are teachers who readily admit they can’t work with infants because of the crying. We’ve all seen complete strangers walk up to crying children and dangle keys in their faces or start spouting baby talk, and many parents suffer through parenting advice from amateur child psychologists. It may be annoying, but it is something we’re all programmed to do. We hear those wails and our instincts say, “Make that stop.” In addition to the primal survival reaction (tears = something’s wrong and must be righted), it may also be that tears bring up painful or fearful memories in ourselves. Those are powerful motivators to rush in and shush and rock any crying child.
And yet we don’t.
Our philosophy tells us that crying is part of a child’s language and mode of communicating. We recognize that crying is an expression of an emotion and believe that all emotions should be expressed. We don’t want to send the message that it’s not okay to be sad because sadness (and anger and frustration) is a part of life, just as joy is. Rather than tamping down those reactions, we hope to help children learn to express them and deal with them. We want children to trust how they feel. Magda Gerber (founder of Resources for Infant Educarers) tells parents, “If you tell your child not to cry, you better set aside lots of money to send her to Primal Scream Therapy when she grows up” (Your Self-Confident Baby).
Of course, this doesn’t mean we simply ignore a crying child. We come close to crying children, holding them when they are ready. We talk to them about what we can observe and offer labels: “I see that you’re crying. Are you missing your mother? It is sad when she has to go to work.” Instead of trying to distract a crying child or simply telling him “you’re okay” (how would you react to a friend who wouldn’t talk about your problems with you or just said “It’s okay”?), we talk about real reasons that might offer comfort. In the example of a child who is sad when a parent leaves, we sometimes remind children that favorite caregivers are present, we might talk about all of the things they enjoy doing here or we talk about how and when their parents will return. The hugs and words will eventually help to offer comfort and the episode will resolve itself naturally. It might not happen as quickly as it could if we tried distraction, but it sets up a healthy pattern.
It can be exhausting to be a teacher (or parent!) dealing with the dizzying highs and the dramatic lows of a toddler. There are days when we could deal with this emotional roller coaster by sitting down and having a good cry with them. But it is important to remember that our patience and calm words offer not only comfort, but also acceptance of their feelings and who they are.