No More Ice Cream (or, How to Sit in the Yuck with Your Kid)
Did I ever tell you about the time I had a moment of panic when a police officer walked by me and my daughter and paused when he saw her crying her eyes out?
Wait. Let me back up a bit. First, why am I bringing this up?
One of the most common things I hear from parents goes something like this, "What do I do when she's crying?" or, "I can't take it when he's upset!" And I get it. Seeing (and hearing) our children when they're in distress is hard. It's like a punch in the gut when we see the tears, and all we want to do is swoop in and make things better.
Which is why it's a bit of a conversation stopper when I reply, "Tell me more about why it's bad to cry." There's usually a pause, then some stammering as they try to put into words this concept that has been hammered into most of us from a very young age: sad = bad. But does it, really? Don't we spend a lot of time talking about emotions, and how all of them are okay? Don't we have books and songs and stories where the characters are sad sometimes, and even say things like, "It's okay to cry?" If we really believe it's okay to cry, why are we so freaked out when our kids actually do it?
Let's go back to me, my daughter, and the cop.
School had just let out, and there was a convenience store down the block. Sometimes I'd take the kids there after school for a treat, like pan dulce or ice cream. Since it was a crazy hot day, the kids chose ice cream. Everything was going really well, with big smiles all around, as I paid for the treats and we exited the store. I helped them take off the plastic and we took about five steps before I heard the distinct (and distressing) plop sound of ice cream hitting the hot sidewalk behind me, followed immediately by a fraction of a second that felt like a thousand years. I turned to see my daughter frozen in shock as her beautiful ice cream quickly began melting in the heat.
That's when the screams commenced.
As tantrums go, it was a doozy. And honestly, I couldn't blame her. That really sucked! I hunkered down next to her and tried to comfort her. Keep in mind we were just five steps from the store--and there were a lot of folks in there. At least three men came out to see what all the howling was about, and then promptly offered to buy her another ice cream. I was touched, and said, "That is so kind, thank you. But we'll be okay."
The look of accusation and horror in their eyes was louder than her screams, let me tell you. But I smiled at them again, and then went back to comforting my daughter. It was just after the third man was turned away that the police officer walked by. He saw what was going on and paused near us, watching. Which was totally appropriate, by the way. There was a part of my brain saying, Oh, good, he's looking out for my kid and making sure she's okay. But another part of my brain thought, Oh, crap, I hope it doesn't look like she's freaking out because I'm kidnapping her! Then I realized she's pretty much a carbon copy of me, and no one would think she wasn't mine. I told my brain to calm down.
"You okay, kiddo?" he asked.
She replied with an inarticulate howl of agony, vaguely pointing to the now mostly liquid pile of goo on the sidewalk in front of her.
"She dropped her ice cream," I said. "She's really sad about that."
"Aren't you going to get her another one?" he asked.
"Sometimes sad things happen," I said as I took a deep breath and continued to rub her back as I knelt next to her.
"That's true," he said slowly, nodding. "Would you like a sticker?" he reached into his pocket to pull out a sticker of a badge. My son, who'd been watching all of this from the safety of the sidelines while happily eating his own ice cream, immediately said, "I want one!"
That was enough to pull my daughter out of her fit enough to demand she wanted one, too.
"Hey, guys," I said, "how do we ask nicely?"
"Please?" said my son.
"Puh-puh--please," said my daughter in between sobs.
"Do you happen to have two?" I asked. He did, and both kids got to put a shiny badge sticker on their shirts. We all said thank you to the officer, and as he walked away my daughter was much calmer. Which meant it was quiet enough for my son to hear me when I said, "Your sister dropped her ice cream. She sure was sad."
He nodded and then asked her, "Do you want some of mine?" She said yes, and they shared what was left as we walked back to the car.
I can hear the questions from here! Why didn't I get her another ice cream, or let one of the nice men give her one? Why didn't I demand my son share sooner? Why did I ask the officer if he had two stickers if I'm so committed to letting my kids be miserable?
All perfectly good questions, and as always there are no perfect answer...because parenting is never, ever perfect. But here are my best answers:
I could have easily gone back in and gotten her another ice cream, or accepted the kindness of one of the men to offer to do so. But in that moment I saw an opportunity to give my daughter something even better--the experience of feeling supported and loved during a really awful time. In that moment, my goal wasn't to make my daughter happy. My goal was to teach her that I would be there for her in good times and bad, no matter what.
I didn't demand my son share at all, actually. I just pointed out what had happened, once things had quieted down a bit. He decided to share, and that was pretty awesome. Another lesson in the moment was for him, that he could do something to help his sister feel better. He had an immediate and accessible ice cream treat, one he could share...and few things feel better than helping someone else feel better.
As to why I asked if there were two stickers...honestly, it was just because I was already pretty tapped out by the big feelings one of the twins had over the ice cream. I really wanted to avoid another meltdown from the other kid if it was possible...and I am SO thankful it was possible!
I bring this story up often when I hear parents struggling with what to do about their little one's tears. Here's why--that kindergartner is a teenager now, and (I hate to break it to you) those big feelings are still there. But most of the time I can't magically fix the sad times by buying another ice cream treat. I can't make the clique include her in the game, or the teacher give her a better grade, or the other kid ask her to the dance.
Sometimes sad things happen.
When that ice cream dropped, instead of swooping in and trying to make things better, first I dropped down and just stayed with her while she was sad. I didn't try to fix anything. I didn't try to make her feel any differently than she did in that moment. Sometimes what our kids need most from us is to just sit in the yuck with them so they know they're not alone.
Those moments never last forever. There will always be something--a kind, sticker-wielding cop, for example--to show us there's more in the world than what we just lost. There will always be someone--a sweet brother, perhaps--to share their time and resources to help get us through the moment. But above all I hope that what my daughter learned that day was all of her feelings truly are valid, that I will be by her side even when the ice cream hits the pavement, and that she is never, ever alone.
So the next time you're feeling the gut punch of your kid crying, or you're overwhelmed by the keening of a child who got the blue cup when they wanted the red cup, take a deep breath. Ask yourself if this might be a good time to give them something even better than the red cup, if you have the bandwidth to drop down next to them and just be there through the tears. And if things don't go perfectly, well, that's okay, too. Our kids are generous, and there will always be another chance.