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Last week, my neighbor Ryan asked me to watch his 6-month-old daughter while he ran a quick errand. As the mother of two
teenagers, I was thrilled to have a baby to coo over and gladly took the little Morgan in my arms. Before Ryan rushed off, he pulled a pacifier from his pocket
and brandished it in the air. "If she starts getting fussy, just insert the
plug," he joked. "But she's usually pretty mellow."
I accepted the paci and set it on the counter. Mellow or
not, Morgan had just been dropped off with a near stranger in an unfamiliar
house. She was going to cry—that much I knew. I also knew that I was unsure
about that pacifier.
I had never used one with my own children, choosing instead
to listen to them cry, which is very different from letting them cry it out
alone. I would listen by paying attention and keeping them safe as they squirmed
and wailed and pummeled the air with their fists. Instead of inserting a plug,
trying to distract them with food or attempting to fix their feelings, I would
gently reassure my young children that they were fine and encourage them to shout it
Crying, I believe, should be heard and not hushed. It's an
expression of emotion that helps a person heal. Yet we act like it's a thing to be feared, and then conquered.
My son Phin, especially, could go for hours in my arms,
wiggling and red-faced with tears pouring out. I might have had paci temptation
at times, but we never actually brought one into the house. Instead my husband
and I would let him do his thing, often taking turns as listeners. When Phin
was done with his "session" as we called it (avoiding the negative implication
of "tantrum"), he would stop, look at us with a smile and then be ready to
get on with his day. He knew exactly what he needed and it wasn't someone
Something amazing happens when you listen to a child's deepest feelings without becoming reactive.
My friend with two pre-schoolers said now they give newborns
pacifiers at the hospital. They're called soothies, and I'm sure they've helped
plenty of mothers get some much-needed sleep. But I wonder if they are habit-forming for both babies and their parents.
A child's loud emotions can be terrifying for parents. Tears
can freak us out. In fact we tend to be pretty good at covering up our own
feelings instead of, well, feeling them. Coffee when exhausted. Wine when
stressed. Chocolate to cheer us up anytime. Imagine if we actually had a relaxed person listen to us scream and shout instead? We might go for hours, the way a baby or
young child can. We'd almost surely eat less sugar.
As I expected, Morgan started to fuss minutes after her
father left. I bounced her around and showed her the overhead fan. We sang a
bit. We danced to Meghan Trainor. And then she started to really wail. That's
when I reached for her pacifier. Ryan was only going to be gone a short while,
I justified, and I had pretty limited attention that day. So, "Here you go,
Morgan," I said, "try this."
But Morgan wasn't having it. She spit out the binky and
pumped up the volume. I smiled at her. "Smart girl," I cooed. Then I sat on the
couch, held her in my arms and listened to her scream. I promised that her dad
would be home soon, but she was welcome to miss him as loudly as she wanted to.
"Tell me all about it," I said.
While I did that, I remembered that something amazing
happens when you listen to a child's deepest feelings without becoming
reactive. You see the child loudly working through something until she actually
begins to feel better. You see that nothing terrible happens when a baby cries. Tears are healing. Tears are release. And overtime, you see the child
understanding that you are really there for her, unafraid
of her worst hurts and eager to help her heal. It's an experience unlike any
other, and it will build a connection of trust that lasts long beyond the early