The other day I was talking with my daughter on the phone when my granddaughter began to cry. I heard my daughter say, “It’s okay JoJo, it’s okay.” To which I gently replied, “No, it is not okay.” I must be experiencing what recovering smokers or alcoholics experience when confronted with their old habits. I recognized this as something I used to say to Susannah when she was crying and, now that I am aware of this statement, I am hearing this phrase all the time from parents to their children.
Unfortunately, if we examine what is being said, that statement is placating at best and dismissive of what the infant is expressing, at worst. When this happened, JoAnna was four months old, how else is she or any infant to communicate her dislikes? Four months is about the time that I have found that parents begin to discern the differences in a baby’s cries, recognizing the tone, volume, and intensity. However, even the tiniest of cries is a communication, whether we are smart enough to decipher them.
I have not done any research on this, but I would imagine that at this point in their life, there is no way to know if the infant’s preferred way of relating to the world will be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic/somatic (touch and/or feeling). I do know that infants utilize all three at different stages of their development, both trying to explore their new world and in communicating. Even if they are maybe crying to let us know something is simply displeasing them, take a look at how their whole body is involved! Later on, hand gestures will augment and clarify their cries.
One way in which I like to drive home a point is to either use an analogy or to state the point in the extreme. Imagining an infant could talk and was saying “I need your attention because I am feeling abandoned,” would we reply, “It’s okay?” Even if this request is totally selfish on the infant’s part, say you have just turned away for a moment, and they are demanding 100% of your time, would we answer, “It’s okay” after this statement?
Words have meaning. Although a preverbal child may not know what is being said, there is an energy behind the words that conveys a meta-message, the message below the message. What message is being conveyed by, “It’s okay?” Using the example above, is the message, “It is okay that you feel abandoned,” “It is okay that you feel ignored,” “It is okay that you feel dismissed?” I know that is not what the parent is really trying to say. Still using “It’s okay,” is not what I would call a complete communication.
After being hammered when using “it” in my dissertation, I now know that this is a meaningless word. We humans have a hard enough time truly communicating our thoughts and feelings to another without using easily misunderstood words and “it” is one of the worst. Just exactly does “It” refer to?” Is that word referring to the crying, the situation, the baby’s feeling, or something else? At least take the time and make the effort to define “it!”
Assuming that the “It” in the phrase “It’s okay” in the above example is really trying to communicate, “I hear your crying,” the absurdity of this statement then becomes truly apparent. “Your crying is okay.” Gee, thanks mom that I have your blessing to communicate to you in the only way I know how. How about, “Your feeling of abandonment is okay.” Really?!? If the child just fell and feels even minor pain, are we saying, “Your pain is okay!”
We need to remember are talking to an infant that has almost no reference in the world, no situational memory to draw upon, and no way to conceptualize what an action truly means. For many months, a baby does not even know where the pain she is feeling came from, she just know that she hurts. Since the communication is a cry, how much better to acknowledge the cry has been heard, conceptualize what we think in happening, fully giving our attention to the child?
Again, they may not understand, but they will feel the message. My daughter may have said, “I hear you are displeased and it might be because I am talking to Poppy and not paying attention to you. I love you and I am going to fully pay attention to you when I hang up in a few minutes and then we will play again. If you need me to hold you while I am talking, just let me know.” First, this in of itself is giving attention to the baby and in an authentic way, acknowledging that they are trying to communicate a thought and/or and emotion. Then, we are framing a time period and offering a return to what the baby considers normal, her mother’s attention. A further benefit is allowing the child to feel disappointment and then learn that feeling does not last forever, preparing them for when disappointment again enters into their life adventure.
Convoluted, you say! I would offer that this complete communication only feels strange because we simply do not practicing this form of speech. Instead of passing on incomplete communication techniques, how much better to begin to authentically communicate with an infant, and then carrying that communication forward as she grows, coaching them how to talk. A colleague of mine practiced this communication with her daughters and then witnessed one of them communicating with her dolls in exactly the same manner!
My daughter has become so adept at this style of communication, she even taught me! A couple of months later we were driving to Denver to see my dad and Susannah brought up an issue with her in-laws that is causing the family some concern. After a few minutes, JoAnna began to cry and Suz immediately acknowledged that JoJo might be concerned that something bad might happen to her paternal grandparents, apologized for having an adult conversation with me that we didn’t realize would be upsetting to her, and let JoJo know there was nothing for her to worry about. Did JoAnna understand the words, of course not, but she did understand the energy of our conversation. After being acknowledged, JoAnna responded with a smile and no longer cried!
Also, do not expect this to come naturally, that same weekend I watched JoJo one afternoon when Suz and Charlie had errands to run. JoAnna was a bit cranky due to not wanting to take a nap and although I didn’t say “It’s okay” much, I still caught myself saying that phrase! As is the case with all parenting/grandparenting, getting it right the first time is not necessary, but that we then initiate a repair when we recognize we have not parented optimally. I had several opportunities to repair that afternoon!