Children’s feelings weren’t taken very seriously back when I was a child; in those days a child expressing negative feelings was known variously as ‘ungrateful,’ ‘spoilt’ or just ‘naughty.’ Remember these favourite parenting phrases from childhood:
‘I’ll give you something to cry about’
‘Your face will be fixed in that expression if the wind changes’
‘I’ll show you what unhappy means’
‘Who said life was going to be a bowl of cherries?’
‘Big boys don’t cry’
‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk’
‘There are plenty worse off than you’
‘Life isn’t fair, better get used to it’
‘Has someone died?’
‘You can’t always get what you want’
‘Think yourself lucky’
To see how things have changed, I did a quick check of popular parenting advice to find out how we’re meant to deal with a child’s negative feelings these days and here’s a selection of examples I found to compare and contrast:
‘I’m right here. I will stay with you until you’re ready to clean your teeth’
‘Are you still thinking about the toast I cut the wrong way?’
‘What do you hate most about school?’
‘I’ll stay with you. You get to fight hard if you like. I won’t let you hurt me’
Apart from the fact that I couldn’t think of better ways to help a child get stuck in his feelings and feel justified in continuing to behave like an obnoxious brat, I have a sneaking suspicion that this advice is directed towards mothers who are assumed to have all the time in the world to devote themselves 100% to attending to their children. I particularly love (view with horror) the toast one in its implicit permission to hold a grudge against Mum for not performing her duties to the acceptable level of perfection.
We’ve moved from complete dismissal to total indulgence of negative feelings over the course of a few decades. The first rule of parenting is that you will reinforce the behaviour you focus on, that which gets a child lots of your undivided attention. The old way may have been a bit harsh, but it never works to go to the opposite extreme in anything does it?
If we’re just authentic, we’ll sometimes respond to negative feelings with empathy and sometimes not, and that way children naturally learn that their feelings are important – but just not always the most important thing in the world.