Q. I have a 13-month-old. Whenever he falls down or starts to cry because he wants to be picked up, my husband won't pick him up or comfort him because he says it will make him a "mama's boy." I disagree. As a result, our son prefers being with me, which seems to bolster my husband's hypothesis. Is it true that answering my son's cries quickly or comforting him when he falls will make him "soft"?
A. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for most parenting challenges. The dilemma you raise is no exception. Deciding how best to comfort a child who is upset calls for parents to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings, as well as discuss what their goals are for their child. Then they need to come to some agreement, often a compromise, that respects both partners' perspectives.
I assume your husband's concern is that comforting your son will hinder his ability to become an independent person and handle challenges on his own. Many dads, and moms too, share this concern. These beliefs often come from the messages parents received from their families as they were growing up. And, of course, many come from a person's ideas about gender identity, such as the notion that a boy will not be tough if he cries or needs help when upset.
On the other hand, you may feel that meeting his needs will actually make him strong; and you may worry that he will feel insecure and will trust you less if you do not comfort him.
To deal with this difference of opinion, start by looking at the big picture. The fact is that kids are not born with the skill of managing their strong emotions. When parents and caregivers help children calm down when they are sad, scared, angry, or overwhelmed and then help them think about how they want to handle their feelings, kids learn to cope with the many frustrations and disappointments they will encounter as they grow. This doesn't mean you should let your child wallow in his emotions, but his feelings shouldn't be ignored either.
By and large, the approach that works best actually encompasses both your and your husband's point of view. The first step is to validate the child's experience. ("You are mad that Johnny took your ball." Or, "It hurts when you fall down.") Then provide him with the support and comfort he needs to feel secure again. Once he has calmed down, he can focus on figuring out how to solve the problem.
Here's how it might look in real life. Your son falls down as he's playing tag with you. He starts to cry. You or your husband says something like, "Uh oh! You fell down." (Use a loving but matter-of-fact voice, not one that is overly concerned or panicky because kids pick up on their parents' cues about how to feel in new situations.)
Then you provide some physical comfort, a hug or a gentle stroke to the affected area of his body, and encourage him to play again, letting him know you think he can do it. In this way, you and your husband can team up in the extreme sport we call parenting.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.