Tears fears: When it’s O.K. to cry in front of your kids


File photo. File photo.

Fine, I did it. We were pulling into our parking space, and even with the Happy Feet DVD playing and my escalating promises of macaroni for lunch and juice at dinner and twin ponies made out of Skittles for her 32nd birthday, my toddler would not stop crying.

I could be having a root canal without Novocain, and if I heard that penguin say, “Don’t be so snooty, booty!” I’d still laugh. I wouldn’t even care if the dentist took the wrong tooth.

But no, not Eliot. She insisted on reaching that octave—the one where kittens stop playing with yarn and start getting tattoos.

Seeing Christopher, my 1-year old, smiling in his car seat should have reminded me to breathe or count to 10 or do hot yoga in the backseat. I did none of those things. Instead, I fake cried.

I’m not saying I’m proud of it; I’m just saying it worked. She stopped. “Mommy sad? Mommy sad?” she asked over and over.

Talk about guilt. I didn’t know what to say, so I strung a line of words together like a hashtag: NoI’mNotSadI’mJustHungryForThatYummyMacaroniWho’sWithMe?!

But as I pushed the double stroller up the hill toward our apartment, she persisted. “Mommy sad? Mommy cry?”

I don’t think Eliot has seen me cry since she turned 2 and started identifying emotions. But her response to my fake cry made me wonder what would happen if she saw the real thing.

To find out if I’d ruined my daughter’s life, I called Edith “Winx” Lawrence, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. I didn’t tell her about the whole Happy Feet incident, because, you know, she’s busy.

“I think it’s generally healthy for kids to see their parents have a range of emotion, as long as it’s not an overload for them,” Lawrence said. “Seeing tears normalizes that sadness is something that occurs and…that you can get over it.”

So far, so good. I probably hadn’t caused significant harm. But what about that concerned face Eliot made? It stuck with me. One minute she was screaming, and the next, her face was saying, “Do you think the sweet baby Jesus is hungry? I have some carrots.”

Apparently, that’s not uncommon for toddlers.

“Toddlers are kind of natural consolers and nurturers,” Lawrence shared. “That’s one of the things that makes us crazy, right? Two-year-olds hit each other then they want to hug each other and make the other feel better. They don’t see that as a contradiction.”

Had professor Lawrence been in the minivan with us that morning?

I also learned in our conversation that, in the event of a real cry, I can talk to Eliot about it.

“One of the things we say to kids all the time is, ‘Put words to it,’” Lawrence said, “and I think it’s the same thing for us.”—Taylor Harris

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