This appears in a larger article about emotions and will be published in The Observant Mom: Toddlers. Much of this was inspired by the book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children.
The most common, powerful, and intellectually riveting theme throughout all books is to validate a child’s feelings.
Reading about validating feelings came just at the right time for me, when my son was 2 years and 2 months. At this age, I found, emotions as verbally stated started to surface.
My first experience was during the summer in FL, when it thunderstorms a lot. One day, thunder cracked. My son became visibly scared and even said, “John scared.” I told him “It’s thunder; it’s nothing to be scared of.” As I was saying it, I regretted the words coming out of my mouth and wanted to kick myself. Here I was reading all about validating children’s feelings, meditating on the nuances of how this applies, and for this very simple emotion, I was telling him not to feel it, that he should feel what I wanted him to feel, i.e., I was externally manipulating him.
A few days later, suddenly and unexpectedly, thunder cracked. He became visibly scared again, and again said, “John scared!” This time, prepared, I used descriptive language. I told him, “It’s thunder,” and then I validated his feelings the best way I know how: I put my hand on his knee and said, “It’s OK to be scared.” For the next crack of thunder, he said, without even a hint of fear and with much enthusiasm, “Thunder! John is scared of thunder!” He said this in the same way he might have said, “John is going to ride a train!!”
I was truly stunned by this. He seemed as excited about identifying his emotion as he was when he first learned what a “ball” or the “moon” was. For the next several days, when thunder roared, he simply said, “John is scared of thunder,” and kept doing what he was doing. Validating his feelings did not cause him to curl up into a ball: It empowered him.
From then on, he always informed me of his feeling of being scared of many things. This included a dragon on a blanket, which I was then able to roll up for him. It also included telling me he was scared of another child chasing him—but, that time, he liked it. Had I kept telling him, “Don’t be scared!” how long would it take before he started to hide his feelings from me? For him to learn that his emotions weren’t important? When he was older, on his own, with no pressure from us, when he was afraid of things, he would often say, “But I am going to be brave!” Had I ordered him to not be scared, would he ever learn that bravery is not the absence of fear but confronting fear?
Emotions are important. They act as important catalysts. Let’s take the thunder example one step further: Imagine humans did not live in houses. If so, thunder would be the first warning to go seek shelter from dangerous lightning, wind, and rain. If thunder cracked and an adult told a child to not be scared, the child’s emotions would be scrambled in such a way to work against his own survival.
One feeling that should always be respected is a child’s right to their own body. They should never be forced to kiss an older relative out of “respect.” Think of the contradictory message it sends when an adult tells them, “No one should touch you in a way you don’t like,” and then someone forces them to be touched in a way they don’t like. It is this very “something isn’t right” feeling that can potentially save our lives: Teach your children to trust it. All emotions, even the “bad” ones, which elders tend to be so insistent on stamping out of children, have a purpose
It is an enormous gift to your child to identify, validate, and help your child understand his own emotions. A young child is not lying when they say they are scared, upset, cold, etc. How comfortable a child will become when they learn that their emotions are allowed to be felt; that what they are feeling is actually real—that they are heard! When emotions are allowed to be felt, you can then deal with them in appropriate ways. From Dr. Ginott, Between Parent and Child:
While we are not free to choose the emotions that arise in us, we are free to choose how and when to express them, provided we know what they are. That is the crux of the problem. Many people have been educated out of knowing what their feelings are. When they felt hate, they were told it was only dislike. When they were afraid, they were told there was nothing to be afraid of. When they felt pain, they were advised to be brave and smile. Many of us have been taught to pretend to be happy when we’re not.
What is being described here is empathy. There is much confusion about empathy. Empathy does not mean “help others.” It also does not mean “agree with others.” It simply means to turn a listening ear to a person. Dr. Ginott says this should be done in a short way, “turn a paragraph into a sentence; a sentence into a word; a word into a gesture.” I make it a point to re-read Dr. Ginott’s book every single year.
Many say that this approach of validating feelings is the “Emotional” approach and not validating feelings is the “Rational” approach. I would like to submit an argument that validating emotions is the rational approach, and that it is not a matter of Emotions versus Reason, but some other continuum. After an explanation, I will make my case for which continuum.
To begin, let’s imagine the opposite of validating feelings, using two adults. Imagine a wife said she was cold in their house, and the husband says, “Don’t be silly, it’s hot in here.” Any person somewhat familiar with married life can tell you how this response from the husband might make the wife feel and even react. She would be upset, possibly angered. Or, even if she does slink away and just gets a blanket or sweater, resentment will build.
Would you consider the husband’s response to be “Rational”? Was his interpretation of how the temperature felt on his skin unequivocally correct? Was he the much smarter and more rational person and thus able to dictate the temperature of the house? Quite contrary, in this story, the husband was insensitive, arrogant, arguably abusive.
If the husband had at least recognized that his wife was cold, i.e., had empathy, would the result be more loving or less?
Let’s look further at what is meant by this “Rational” model as applied to parenting. Let’s use two examples.
First example: A family is in the car and a young boy wants to get home right away, because he is hungry or has to use the bathroom, and keeps complaining and complaining. The parent tells the child that they are stuck in traffic and can’t get home until they get home and order the boy to stop complaining. After all, those are the facts of the matter.
Second example: A family is about to leave an amusement park. A child wants to go on one more ride. The parent explains to the child that it is late; that they have a long drive; and they must go. The child then has a tantrum and the parents order, yelling, “We’ll just want until you are done!”
Situations like this play out 1,000 times or more per day, every single day. Here are some alternative solutions, where emotions are validated. You tell me which solutions seem more rational—and also which one seems more loving.
It is true in the first example that the family is stuck in traffic. That is a fact, and contributes to why this model is considered “Rational.” It is acceptable to give this fact to the child, stating it but once. What is not acceptable is telling the child to stop complaining about it, i.e., how to feel and how to react.
Consider how the following solutions might play out. You may say to the child: “Oh honey I know you are so hungry”; or describe how you are going as fast as you can to get home, because you understand their hunger; or indulge the fantasy of getting home by wishing for a flying car that could get out of traffic. Also, it is not an immutable fact that you have to wait to get home until the child can eat or use the bathroom. You may stop somewhere along the way to get food or use the bathroom.
In the case of the family leaving the amusement park, where the child wants to stay and the adults want to go, imagine it is two adults leaving the amusement park. One wants to stay and another wants to go. One argues that it is getting late and another argues that they could squeeze in one more ride. Is the adult who wants to go rational—or do they just have a different preference? Could the two make a negotiation or see each other’s viewpoints?
This situation actually happened to us. My son wanted to go on a ride and we couldn’t, as it was late, and he was crying. I tried a few tactics, but when I finally asked if he wanted to talk about the ride, he muffled, “Yes.” The tears started to stop. I then held him, described the ride in thorough detail to him and reminisced on how much fun it was. As I did this, we walked peacefully to our car. Upon driving, he was asleep quickly.
How long and how unsettling would it have been to argue with a small child about the rightness of getting to the car? Instead, I saw his viewpoint and indulged his fantasy, and the result was peace. I see myself as with but mild rights to exercise wise decisions on behalf of my children.
In the above examples, which led to a more peaceful solution: arguing “facts” and wisdom with children or validating their feelings? I have brought up the point about love several times already for a reason. Have you ever noticed that the word “rational” coincides with a person who has a calm, peaceful temperament? But the word rational has nothing to do with temperament. It simply means to use facts to make decisions. It is simply the case that the person with facts on their side tends to be calm. I have seen it dozens of times that the validating feelings approach leads to peaceful solutions and a calm home. So, which one of these approaches is the more rational, which is also more peaceful, and more importantly, why can we consider it to be “rational”?
The “Rational” model, I propose, is the one where feelings are validated; that feelings are what they are; that they are immutable facts of reality to be dealt with. That is what rationality is: Accepting that reality is what it is, that A is A.
If you’ve told someone who says they are cold (“A”) that they are hot (“B”), you have just invalidated their feelings—and the Law of Identity. Telling a person they are hot when they are cold doesn’t alter the fact that they are cold. Feelings exist. They are there. In this case, it is the feelings which are facts.
When you don’t deal with things as they are, the result is abuse, poverty, and stagnation. If a chemist treated sulfuric acid (“A”) as water (“B”), and drank it, the result is damage to the body. But when reason is applied correctly, such as it has been in the hard sciences to the laws of reality, the result is prosperity. In the hard sciences, it has brought us medical technology, computers, cars—the list goes on.
Similarly, when you treat emotions as invalid, when you don’t treat emotional facts as true, the result is unhappiness, anger, and hatred. But, when you apply reason, the Law of Identity, to emotions, the result is love. Love, not simply “Emotions,” but as “Reason applied to Emotions,” is exactly the right description of this parenting style. Parents who use this model tend to have very calm, peaceful, loving homes. And embracing all of those unhappy emotions is what leads to the happy ones. It is thus that one side of the continuum of parenting styles, I propose, is Love, defined just previously as reason applied to emotion, which results in love.
What has been described previously as the “Rational” approach is not one of rationality, but of a parent being assumed to be older and thus more knowledgeable and able to dictate their “facts,” really their judgment of a situation, to their children. They are given the power to make decisions on behalf of the child, without the child’s input. This isn’t rationality. This is Authoritarianism.
I had a play date with a family once. A son said, “I am hungry.” The mother snapped, “Don’t be silly. You just ate.” Then she looked at her watch and realized it was an hour later than she thought, and was their standard lunch time. So much for the omniscience of adults! That entire playdate was marked by the mother snapping at her children to just be happy and stop complaining. Towards the end, the unhappiness of all hung in the air as to make everyone miserable. When unhappy emotions aren’t allowed to be felt and aren’t dealt with, this is what they do: They hang over everyone like an unhappy cloud.
Thus the other side of the continuum, I propose, is Authoritarianism. This issue is not “Emotion versus Reason,” but of Love versus Authoritarianism. The latter model of parenting is not based on reason; it is based on the assumption that parents are always right and have the authority to order their children around. This issue is one of being an attentive, listening, responsive parent or a calloused, insensitive, arrogant one. Invalidating emotions is not rational. It is abusive.
The title of my book series is “The Observant Mom,” because I have found that observation is the central skill for quality parenting. An observant parent, from the day a child is born, looks for signs and cues as to what is happening with the child, such as sleepy and hunger signs when the child is an infant. From reading about validating child’s emotions from these enlightened authors, let emotions be another sign to look for as you observe your child. A child’s emotions should be as glaringly obvious to a parent as a bruise on their arm or the words coming out of their mouth, and should be taken into account as they make parenting decisions. The authors even describe this, in a section called “Feelings are fact”:
My children’s feelings had become as real to me as apples, pears, chairs, or any other physical object. I could no more ignore what the children felt than I could ignore a barricade in the middle of the road. It is true that their feelings could change—sometimes very quickly—but while these feelings were being felt there was no greater reality.