It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Your baby cries: Gut and Head duke it out over Tears

tears1“Can I wear your lion hat?”

It was October, a long-ago daycare Hallowe’en party. Adults with wine glasses mingle whilst toddlers rampage at knee-level. The tots are in their Hallowe’en finery, among them a lion, whom we will call Cecily.

“No. I don’t want you to wear it.”

Clear enough. He does have a costume of his own, after all. Complete with headgear. Mind you, if Cecily hadn’t been empowered by parental presence, she would have been much more likely to try the old Mary’s-house stand-by “In a minute”. Had I not been politely deferring to parental presence, I might have, while acknowledging her right not to share her costume, encouraged her to be a little more solicitous of his feelings. However, parental authority trumps Mary’s (which is as it should be), and in this case, allows the child to be the autocratic despot in my home that, by all parental accounts and available evidence, she is at home. (Which is not as it should be. Oh, well.) And even at Mary’s, Land of Sharing, it is understood that you don’t have to share things that you wear.

“No, I don’t want you to wear it.”

Other child, who we’ll call Ralphie, bursts into tears. Cecily is irked.

“I’m allowed to say no!” (Funny how they can apply the principles from Mary’s house when it suits them. Sharing goes out the window when parents hover near, but the right to say no? That one is never forgotten.)

Ralphie’s tears spur Cecily’s mother to action. She swoops in, squats beside her daughter. Ralphie’s mother tries to deflect, “No, no, it’s okay.” Cecily’s mother wants to do this, though. Needs to.

“Oh, honey. Don’t you think you could let him have a little turn?” Sweetly coaxing, gently solicitous.

Cecily’s eyes dart, a little anxious, a little defiant.

“I don’t want him to wear it.”

“Oh, but sweetie, he’s sad. Look.” Hearing the sympathy oozing from Cecily’s mummy’s voice, little Ralphie’s tears double in volume. As does his volume. Cecily is not unmoved by the tears, but she’s holding firm.

“I’m ALLOWED to say no!” And then she bursts into tears.

Trapped between two wailing children, Cecily’s mother is flummoxed. No matter what she does now, someone will be unhappy. The children, perhaps sensing her uncertainty, or maybe just hitting their stride, get even louder, and, if possible, wetter.

(This sort of thing happens at virtually every single “let’s have mommy and daddy come!” party I throw. This is why, though I continue to host these gatherings, I always do it with an inner sigh.)

Cecily’s mom attempts further appeasement. She is not successful. Cecily’s dad, with the male “can we please solve this and get back to the party” directness, intervenes.

“I think she’s made her point of view very clear. She doesn’t want him to wear the hat.”

“You think?” Mom wavers, uncertain. She casts a sorrowful glance at Ralphie and his copious tears. “But he…” Her glance shifts to her still-wailing daughter (though the intensity is decreasing now that she senses dad is in her corner).

Ralphie’s mother, relieved, steps in. “He’ll be fine. He has his own costume. Come on, sweetie. Why don’t you show me the craft you did today?”

Crisis averted.

Now for the analysis. Why did this situation arise?
– because a child wouldn’t share?
– because another child wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer?
– because the children were overstimulated?
– too much sugar? party excitement?
– too little sleep?
– the disruption of routine?

While any or all of them could be factors, none of them were the root cause. This situation went from tense to tsunami because a parent fell prey to tears.

There were other issues at play, of course. We do want our children to share, we don’t want them to be selfish. We do want them to develop generosity and empathy, we do want them to be gracious. We want these things for many noble reasons, and we REALLY want them EVEN MORE when we’re in PUBLIC, thankyousoverymuch.

But once again: Where it all went off the rails was not with the children’s behaviour, but with the parent’s response to the tears. None of the larger, more important parenting concerns got a second’s air-time, because the mom was high-jacked by the tears.

Let me underline here that I have a great deal of sympathy for her response. It’s utterly visceral.


The urge to leap in and soothe the tears away is as basic, gut-level a parental response as there is. It’s not about being “nice”, about being “responsive” and “sensitive”. Those are things we tack on after our response to the tears. At base, this urge is about the survival of the species.

Think about it.

You have a newborn. If parents (mothers in particular, being the ones with the food delivery systems implanted on their chests) weren’t hard-wired to respond to baby’s cries, I figure it would take two weeks, max, of severe sleep-deprivation before the poor exhausted woman wouldn’t just soundproof the door and go to sleeeeeeeep. And baby, deprived of those necessary night-time calories, would at the very least be in serious risk of dehydration, if not outright malnutrition.

So. That gut-level “FIX IT!” response to your child’s wails is a biological imperative, put there for the preservation of the species.

Ah, Gut. Remember Gut? We talked about him a few posts ago. Your Gut, which is faster to react than your brain; your Gut, which is PASSIONATE and POWERFUL in all its responses; your Gut does not know that this is not life-and-death, not a matter of survival, not necessary for the continuation of the species. Nor does it care. Your Gut only knows that “Baby cries = Bad. Must stop now.”

And humans, when we have a Gut-level response, we react out of that response. We may rationalize our responses, we may come up with reasons that we’re doing what we’re doing, but in fact, we’re responding from our Gut, not our Head.

However. There comes a time for your Head to over-rule your Gut. It is possible, though it takes focus and determination at first — and the courage of your convictions.

A newborn whose cries for food are ignored is in a life-threatening situation. A toddler who has been refused a lion hat… is not. Just not. (No matter how passionately Gut tells you it is life-and-death! It is! IT IS!) A toddler who is encouraged required to share the damned thing is not going to drop dead from the trauma, either. (Which is not to say that she should have been required to share it. Just that it wouldn’t be life-and-death.)

So, in a clearly non-critical situation like this (and most of them are), you need to step back a pace and consider. Since it’s not life and death, what exactly are the issues?

-The base conflict: your child doesn’t want the other kid to wear her hat; this upsets the other child.
– Social pressures, real or perceived: If you support your child, will that make you look like you’re encouraging selfishness? If you support the other kid, will your child humiliate you in public by throwing a full-blown hissy fit? Will either option make you or your child look bad?
– Character-development/parenting issues: You want your child to be kind, considerate, generous, empathetic.
– Competing character-development/parenting issues: You want your child to be confident and self-assured with clear personal boundaries.

It’s complicated! It’s not simple, and I’m not suggesting there is one right resolution to the situation. There are several, each based on different situational realities and parental priorities. Each response has pros and cons, each response will satisfy some and aggravate others.

So. No one perfect response. (There rarely is, darnit.) What I am saying is that you can’t come to a clear and reasoned response, a response which will address even one of the issues listed above, if you’re reacting out of your Gut-level “RED ALERT!” reflex.

What I am saying is that “Good Parenting” does not necessarily mean soothing the tears away. In the process of raising a happy, responsible, well-adjusted, just generally nice-to-be-around human being, tears are pretty much inevitable. A lot of the time, they’re not (or needn’t be) the focus of our attention. A lot of the time, in fact, they’re a distraction from what really needs to be accomplished.

Get high-jacked by the tears, (as we all do, at least sometimes!), and you miss the real parenting opportunities.

February 28, 2009 - Posted by | manners, parenting, power struggle, socializing, the dark side | , ,


  1. Great post! It can be so hard to stop and think in those situations. And it’s funny how, more often than not, these situations seem to happen over sharing.

    I have to say, though, I was feeling a little uncomfortable while reading the description of the scenario. I’ve been “Ralphie’s Mom” and I always have a really hard time knowing how to respond to the other parent. When another parent goes all “gut response” on MY child’s tears, I get stuck.

    “Stuck” is a pretty good description of what happened to Ralphie’s mom. She tried to deflect Cecily’s mother, unsuccessfully, and after that, she sort of hovered, uncomfortable with the situation, but uncertain what to do next. In the end, poor C’s mum ended up being humiliated, I fear, in part because her efforts were sadly unsuccessful, and in part because her husband over-ruled her. (Not that I want anyone to read disapproval of dad’s actions. It was just an awkward situation from top to bottom — and how to deal with this scenario could easily be the subject of another post!)

    Stop and think. Yup. That’s what’s required, but it’s not always easy.

    Comment by rosie_kate | February 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. This was a fantastic post! I love the head/gut analysis and also how you laid out the competing values that the head is probably searching through. No wonder the powerful gut won out when the head was so confused!

    Thank you! It is a lot to think through, and very often you’re not even entirely conscious of all the issues you’re wrestling with. You just know you feel paralyzed with indecision!

    You can give your poor head a head-start (as it were) by thinking through this scenario in advance, because you know that this situation is so very likely to occur. As you think through your response, you’ll also have a chance to work out some principles which will apply to a variety of situations. Forewarned is fore-armed, as they say!

    Comment by Sarah | February 28, 2009 | Reply

  3. If I were C’s mother, I’d have expected R’s mum to have distracted him at once. It was C’s decision. Clothes are not the same as shared toys. If I were wearing a particularly nice jacket, I’d be quite startled if you asked me if you could wear it for a bit. Cecily was not being selfish, she was quite right.

    I guess I didn’t make it clear enough that Ralphie’s mother did try to intervene, but Cecily’s mother insisted on trying to coax her daughter to share. As for Cecily’s response, and whether she should have be required to share? I agree with you.

    Comment by Z | February 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. totally agree with Z’s comment. it would be totally weird if another adult asked to wear a piece of your clothing, so kids do have a right to say no in this case.

    As I said to Z, I share this opinion. However, I deliberately chose not to draw too much attention to the rights and wrongs of the presenting issue because I wanted our focus to be on the deeper issue, that of having your brain high-jacked by your gut-response to tears. My example could have been any of dozens of scenarios; for the purposes ot our discussion, the cause of the tears is less important than the parental gut-reaction to them.

    Comment by Dana | February 28, 2009 | Reply

  5. You should really write a book with all your amazing, analyzing insights on parenting! Let us know when it’s coming out and they’ll fly off the shelves!!! Great post!

    Comment by Patti | February 28, 2009 | Reply

  6. I keep finding it amazing how effective nature is, though, because my response to crying seems to change as a child grows – except for those cries you know right away are about a BAD THING. By now, my response differs enormously to Pumpkinpie’s cries at nearly 5, as I can very clearly tell what’s a cry worth crying about and what’s not. The younger the child, though, the less easy to separate those things.

    Comment by kittenpie | March 1, 2009 | Reply

  7. You should write a book. Have you written a book?? You really should.

    Comment by No Mother Earth | March 1, 2009 | Reply

  8. I have a friend who’s daughter always gets her way when she cries, because my friend is way too scared of the tears. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t actually like being around the child herself, because she is developing a habit of whining and tantruming, hitting her parents (or my daughter) whenever she is asked to share anything or doesn’t get what she wants. Of course, she is perfectly happy to share my daughter’s toys, food, etc… sigh. It’s hard to keep my eyes from rolling when my friend says “I can’t do that because (X) will have a tantrum.” Who’s in charge here, you or your child? You’re rewarding her for bad behavior!

    Comment by Kiera | March 1, 2009 | Reply

  9. Great analysis. I’m often flummoxed by those situations where I don’t want to give in, my head is telling me DON’T give in but everything in my body is screaming to step in and make the tears stop. It’s so difficult when your child hijacks YOUR emotions with their tears.

    Comment by Dani | March 2, 2009 | Reply

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