The art of learning not to take things seriously: A deliberately controversial post

First a disclaimer:  We are totally AP parents.  If that infant cries, we pick hir up immediately.  We’re also not heartless– if a student’s grandma dies, ze can take time off and turn in assignments late.  And so on.  This post is not about big deals, but about moderating moderate upsets.  End disclaimer.

Sometimes kids get heart-broken over things that really aren’t that big a deal.  Falling down (but not damaging anything).  Dropping a candy (when they have more that haven’t fallen).  Another kid accidentally pushing them (again with no injury).  And so on, with age appropriate examples.

Yeah yeah, some parenting philosophies say you’re supposed to tell kids how they’re feeling.  And some say that you’re supposed to empathize no matter what.  Sometimes we’ve seen this in action and instead of soothing like it’s supposed to, it lengthens the amount of crying and angst.  (Possibly a misapplication of the philosophy.)

We sympathize with disappointment, to the appropriate degree.  Kiss the owie to make it better and go off to play.  (Occasionally a crying jag can be broken if you exaggerate for effect, OH NOOOOO, the world is going to end… that usually gets a giggle.)

It’s important to fix problems (had to take a break from typing this because DC1 got soap in hir eye), but once they’re fixed, they don’t necessarily need the post-game analysis.

Kids pick up on our cues.  If they’re not sure how bad something is, they look to us.  How upset are we?  How upset do we seem to think they should be?  Is this a quick peck and then you run off to play, or is this something that requires lots of sympathy (even if the kid has forgotten which leg got hurt by this point)?

When we make a big deal out of something that isn’t such a big deal, we may be prolonging the angst and the pain that might quickly have been forgotten otherwise.  When we provide too many cushions, we may be denying our children the chance to grow and to find inner-strength.  Bending over backwards as if to keep a delicate flower from being crushed over a small thing may keep that flower from being able to move with the wind.  Our reaction should be appropriate for the upset.

My mom liked to tell me that I was building my character whenever something didn’t go my way.  I remember telling my mom once that my character was buff enough already, thank you.  She said, and I quote, “Oh ho ho ho.  Very funny.”  Ah mom.

But the lesson is a good one.  Yes, we can recover from life’s little setbacks.  We can regulate our emotions.  We don’t always need to be rescued.  We can grow and find our own inner strength, and build that strength.

Spoiler Alert:  I’m currently rereading Foundling by Georgette Heyer, about a little duke who has been coddled much of his life and yearns to break free.  One day he sneaks out, just to see what it’s like.  He spends an uncomfortable time out on his own, but he also grows a lot too.  He comes back with a greater appreciation for the people who love him, but also with his own inner strength.  Life isn’t always about being protected from any potential upset.

So what brings this up?  Mother’s in Medicine had a post discussing whether or not it was ok to keep your kid at daycare if you yourself are on vacation from work.  The original commenter clarified:

This incident stuck with me because the child was very, very upset each morning, much more so than at a regular drop off. The conversation was about making sure you forge a good relationship with your kids while they are little. Perhaps this mother did need a break; however it seemed that perhaps her child needed a bit of vacation then, too.

Assuming that the reason for the kid’s increased upsetness was mom’s being on vacation and not say, staying up too late the night before (because of mom’s vacation) or something completely unrelated like teething, this kind of thing can be a learning experience for the child.

Mom may take a vacation without you.  She may drop you off at daycare and you may imagine that she’ll spend the entire day eating ice cream and going to the zoo without you (more likely she’s going to do boring adult things).  But she’ll pick you up at the end of the day just like always (or maybe daddy will get you like always) and maybe she’ll be relaxed enough that you can do something fun that evening.  It is highly unlikely that a kid is going to be scarred for life by not taking a vacation when he’s supposed to be going to school.  So buck up.  Mom’ll be back and you’ll have plenty of time to have fun again in the future.

And that’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is mom freaking out and feeling guilty.  Because that teaches the kid that this kind of thing is a big deal, which really it isn’t.  Everyone is much happier when we give reactions that are proportionate to events and don’t make a big deal out of nothing.

Ok, Grumpeteers.  Your turn.

56 Responses to “The art of learning not to take things seriously: A deliberately controversial post”

  1. KeAnne Says:

    I agree with you. I did feel a bit guilty when D was at daycare and I took a day off from work but still sent him, but not so guilty I didn’t do it ;-) Actually that’s one of the perks of daycare that I miss now that he is in Pre-K because he has teacher workdays to manage and no daycare to use! I find that I have to take extra time off in order to have that precious day to myself every now and then .

    I feel a lot of guilt and uncertainty about my parenting in general (see current post), but I do want D to be resilient, so we try not to coddle him. If he falls out of his chair after we’ve told him repeatedly to sit up, we will kiss the boo boo but remind him that we told him to sit properly .

    I wish mothers weren’t so prone to feeling guilty about not sacrificing everything for their children.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to feel guilty about that. I’m sure I’ve done it at some point. It’s hard to say though because I’m always supposed to be working…

      I’m sure you coddle him the exact right amount. There’s a big range that’s absolutely fine, and I bet you fall in there. Most people do. (And if you don’t, don’t worry, he’ll most likely get any bad habits you’ve taught him beaten out of him at some point in the future.)

  2. Liz Says:

    This reminds me of a recent argument I had with someone over the HONY post I liked about the preschool teacher who wanted to teach social justice to 3 year-olds (apartheid, racism, etc.) and was let go for her efforts.

    I have no idea how she taught this, so I have no idea if her practice was age-appropriate. But the basic concepts of love and respect should definitely be taught, as children are highly receptive at that age. It doesn’t mean we go into gory details about apartheid or molestation or racial violence, but it does mean we try to be honest that bad things do happen, and that it’s our job to make sure they don’t happen in our little space of influence. Give examples of how people have recognized bad things and responded appropriately to them – using censorship and empathy for what a 3-year old can understand and manage emotionally.

    The counter argument he offered was that a child’s innocence is a thing of beauty to be preserved as long as possible. And that he would never let me babysit his (future imaginary) children because of my opinions.

  3. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I pay for full-time daycare whether my kids are there or not so I usually send them even if I take a day off. Sometimes I use those days to do productive things like grocery shop, laundry, or errands. Other times I go shopping or just relax, or exercise. Maybe I’m being insensitive, but I don’t feel bad at all. My kids have fun at daycare. I’m pretty sure they think very little about what I’m doing while they’re there.

    But then again, I work from home and they’re probably used to me staying home while they go to daycare anyway.

    My husband has next Wednesday off and he’s forcing me to go see Catching Fire and eat Thai food. And yes, we’re taking the kids to daycare just like any other day. (I think the premise of that movie might bother them anyway, hehehe)

    • Rosa Says:

      this is such a revolutionary idea to me. A friend of mine did this recently while she had a break between jobs, and she enjoyed it so much. It really made me realize how bad I felt about daycare when my son was little, which was ridiculous, because he LOVED it.

      In general people gave me a lot of shit for having him in daycare at all, even when I was working – because I was working from home. Apparently everyone else in the world has toddlers who are 100% compatible with working from home. I didn’t – if he knew I was in the house he just cried by the stairs the whole time, even if someone else was there to entertain him – and the daycare was much more fun and good for his development than being ignored while I worked. It’s not like my work was something imaginary I could just do in little bits between parenting, either – I was on the clock, productivity measured in minutes, with defined quality and output goals.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I remember seeing a super nanny where the dad was trying to work from home and take care of like 5 kids at the same time because his wife thought childcare was evil. What happened was he had them sleep in cribs all day–almost criminal neglect–and they went crazy when she got home to get their stimulation in. Super nanny convinced them that outside childcare is not such a bad thing.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    I am still learning these things myself.

    “Kids pick up on our cues. If they’re not sure how bad something is, they look to us.” – Yes. I love using the nurseline my insurance company has for this purpose.

    “Occasionally a crying jag can be broken if you exaggerate for effect, OH NOOOOO, the world is going to end… that usually gets a giggle.” – A co-worker explained to me that he liked to raise his fists to the sky and say “My life is a LIVING HELL!” to help him put things back into perspective for himself. Love it.

  5. Chelsea Says:

    That’s definitely something I’m having to learn as DS progresses toward walking and falls and bangs his head at least daily. My natural instinct is to run over ASAP, but I’m trying to measure my response and make sure he’s actually hurt or upset before I pick him up to comfort him. Often he just needs a few hugs and jiggles and pacifier reinsertion and he’s ready to go again.

  6. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    My thought: Wow, everyone’s having a conversation over at Mothers in Medicine without me! But I’m not a doctor. Am I allowed to join?

  7. Ana Says:

    Ugh that post on MIM pissed me right the hell off. If taking a day (or week) off now and again without your kid is going to scar them for life there is something else fundamentally wrong. I don’t think anything you are seeing is even remotely controversial. But then again I let my kids cry it out in the middle of the night, so…
    We are big on the quick kiss on the boo boo now-run-along. If the 2-year old still wants cuddles I’ll make sure to separate the “needs cuddles” from minor/non-existant injury because he’s been faking “got huuurrrt” lately to get attention. Cuddles are OK—coddles are not!
    Also the “yup. sometimes life is not fair”, and move on to next topic. I have been “naming feelings” for my 3-year old lately as he’s been having truly spectacular meltdowns over tiny things. Like “I see you are angry. We all get angry. Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath and count to 3. Or jump up and down. But you cannot throw the chair at your brother/mother/dog.” etc… He would respond REALLY BADLY right now to the “oh no my life is over” joke. I know because I tried it (it used to work, and hopefully will again).

  8. oil_garlic Says:

    That comment on MIM annoyed me too. That kid will not be scarred for life and I hate the judgmental tone of it.

    My philosophy of parenting is NOT having one. Sometimes I’m sure I over-coddled but we usually encourage the kids to do things on their own. I do think with school, you’re fighting an uphill battle. So many schools now make a big deal out of transitioning from one grade to another, give medals for showing up, etc.. It’s hard not to have an entitled overprotected kid!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I dunno, I don’t like the way she was projecting etc., but I also feel kind of sorry for her once she waded into the comments. I can’t imagine living life creating that kind of unnecessary angst both in herself and potentially in her kids if she ever slipped up from that particular high bar, given that her culture has trained them that voluntary daycare means a lack of love. She realized it was an artifact of how she was brought up, it’s just the projecting it on to everybody else that’s the problem.

      The comment that actually annoyed me on that post was “women’s libbers are the worst of them all”. F*ck the patriarchy, lady.

  9. rented life Says:

    I’m sure someone (though not here, which is the reason I feel like I am actually free to talk here), will tell me I don’t get it because the baby isn’t born yet but I don’t GET the guilt thing. Husband says it’s because I had a very different set of role models than other people did. (In a good way!) I’ve been told not to feel guilty, or that I will feel guilty about where the baby sleeps, how we feed it (breast or not, a “choice” that might not be mine to make, and I find to be rather private so I wish people would stop “asking out of curiosity”), whether or not my birth is “natural” (and god help the next person who starts me on that one), and then whether or not I’ll “stay home.” Because I work at home it’s assumed I’ll work FT at home AND take care of the kid. Because…that’s reasonable.

    It’s very important to both me and my husband that we each have time at home (or wherever) to do our own things–writing, artwork (something he plans to turn into a small side business. So if that means kid goes to babysitter, daycare, grandma’s, then so be it. If it means mommy and daddy take a go away vacation without kid, so be it. I can’t imagine feeling bad about it. I just can’t. How can you be YOU?
    It reminds me of this article about how you can’t become a mom without “losing yourself.” Shoot me now.

    • chacha1 Says:

      My mother never left us in any doubt that her life was just as important as ours, and her “me” time to be respected. We are not scarred by that.

      By other things associated with growing up in rural South Georgia, yes. :-) But not by benign neglect. If we hadn’t been pushed to entertain -and take care of – ourselves from a very young age (8 and 10 is my recollection), we would not have the skill sets we have.

      And if the grounding in self-reliance had not been taught much earlier, pushing us would not have been an option.

      To the intrusive personal questions I would be inclined to simply say “we’re going to do what’s best for us as a family.” Nobody needs to know whether you’re breast-feeding!

  10. Historiann Says:

    I saw the original post at MiM and I agree with the overall message of this post, but: I fail to see how daycare is somehow not empathetic or about the child’s needs! My mother was a SAHM in the early 1970s, and I would have KILLED to be permitted to play with my friends in a daycare or a preschool instead of accompanying my mother on her grocery shopping, trips to the chiropractor, and watching her do the ironing in front of soap operas. I’m not making fun of my mother here–errands and housework was her work at the time, and it sure as hell wasn’t about offering me companionship and stimulation. When I was finally sent to preschool, I’m sure I cried when my parents came to take me home.

    Only in crazy funhouse Dr. Lauraland is child care somehow a terrible fate rather than fun, stimulating, and full of NEW TOYS YOU DON’T HAVE AT HOME!!!!! It’s like some of these parents were never children themselves.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, my grandparents took my mom to the doctor when she was little and his diagnosis was to send her to preschool because the only thing wrong with her was she was bored. (It worked.)

      This particular commenter, it comes out in the comments section, was raised with some sort of weird patriarchy belief that if your parents (cough mom cough) weren’t at work and weren’t taking care of you, then that means they didn’t love you. In such a belief system, it is possible that being left at daycare might trigger a small feeling of being unloved (though obviously that’s probably way beyond the grasp of a toddler and one experience isn’t going to do anything). In reality, most people weren’t raised with any such cultural trappings, and kids feel exactly as you suggest. Many kids raised with those cultural trappings probably also prefer daycare and are like whatever mom.

      Such a sad limiting culture to be brought up in. I hope the commenter is able to break out of it now that she’s realized that’s why she felt the way she did. The patriarchy is evil and insidious and causes a lot of unnecessary unhappiness.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Also I should point out that one of the indoor gym places here makes a killing on mother’s day out for SAHM. So if it’s ok for religious moms who don’t work to take time for themselves…

    • Leah Says:

      So agree! My social circle has a mix of SAHM and working moms, and I’m shocked by the judgment of them towards each other sometimes. We all hang out (and sometimes together)! There’s more judgment from the SAHM moms, as if they somehow have to justify what they do.

      Honestly, I have eyes. I’m most impressed by the development and interactions of the kids I know who’ve gone to daycare or have parents that get them out to things like ECFE (early childhood and family education) on the regular. If you want to keep kids at home, that is completely your decision and fine. But don’t act like it’s the far more noble choice.

      Also, side note, I’d love to have SAHM moms stop complaining about how hard it is to clean their house. I get that they have kids at home. But working moms work all day and then still have to clean with kids at home after they’ve already done plenty that day.

      • Rented life Says:

        Oh my gosh yes. My one SAHM friend is like that. She can’t do anything bc she has kids and keeps telling me I’ll see how it is. Nope. We had chores growing up, no excuse not to do the same for your kids.

      • Rosa Says:

        it is much harder to clean a house with people in it.

        My kid is not so bad (anymore. Though Jesus he used to dirty a lot of dishes when he was an underweight toddler. And we didn’t have a dishwasher.)

        But my partner – when he works from home, he really works. He thinks about work while eating, while peeing, while everything. He does not incidentally do any household chores. So all the dirt he generates that a janitor would deal with at his job – it’s still there when I get home. When we both work from home, it evens out – I spend my breaks doing laundry, dishes, sweeping, etc and that outweighs the extra mess. When I don’t work, like right now, it gets actively cleaner all the time (except during major renovations, like the last few weeks. But then renovations are getting done.)

  11. Alyssa Says:

    Somewhat related: I overheard a couple of daycare staff talking about another mother who had the gall to still bring her kid to daycare even those she took the day off work and was spending it at home instead! I was pretty pissed, since I do that from time to time. Frankly, it’s none of their damn business what the mother was doing while her kid was in daycare as normal! It made me so angry! The kid was just fine, and really had no idea, Im sure!

  12. chacha1 Says:

    No controversy here. :-) My parents were fairly hands-off. They gave me and my sister certain parameters, taught us how to cope with things in an age-appropriate way, and actively discouraged overdramatization. We were expected to figure things out for ourselves, to not whine, to not yell, to be still in public, and generally to behave in a manner that was not offensive to unrelated adults. And if we scraped an arm out climbing trees, we were shown how to clean ourselves up and get back to playing.

    I don’t know how that would work for everybody, but my sister and I – very different, personality-wise – are both resourceful, largely unsentimental, and Getters of Things Done. So from my perspective, this approach is a constructive one.

    I can’t take much of being around people who overdramatize. Kids *or* adults. I have a friend who I love dearly who I see seldom because everything is Such! A! Crisis!.

  13. scantee Says:

    You apparently haven’t gotten the message that mothers are supposed to be martyrs with no identities of their own. I mean, if you’re going to let other people raise your kids you should at least have the good sense to feel bad about it, not flaunt it by taking whole entire days to improve your own well-being.

    I pay for child care five days a week and I will use child care five days a week even if it means I’m spending that whole time getting my hair styled and receiving tennis lessons from a hot, young thing. Earlier this year I went on a week-long overseas vacation by myself, for my own pleasure and enjoyment. The commenter in question would likely die at the very thought of it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:


      It helps that I was raised that way and I think my mom is totally awesome. I want my children to believe that they (and, if applicable, their wives) do not have to be martyrs to their kids. That their wants are important too, when they’re adults and not just when they’re kids.

  14. GEW Says:

    I feel quite a bit of guilt about the things that I do that aren’t focused on my children. I’m not sure if it’s in my nature or if it has to do with the way I was raised or if it’s because my daughter, since about age two, has regularly expressed great sadness about the fact that I am not always with her. During the school year, I am very busy, and she’ll say that I’m “never home” or “always gone.” Now that she’s older, she can recognize that we have lots of time together over summer and winter breaks. But I still feel the guilt. I still do things (work full-time, work *very slowly* on my PhD), but I feel guilt about doing those things. Maybe, subconsciously, I think that guilt is virtuous. I don’t know. But it’s there.

    • Liz Says:

      Not every child (nor every person) has the same resilience, or the same needs. I am someone who has always needed a lot of time to myself. But I know several people who need the exact opposite.

      I know it doesn’t help to say, “you shouldn’t feel guilty,” or “you should do x or y or z thing.” But perhaps this is the beginning of a journey to stop feeling guilty, now that you’ve pseudo-publicly identified it as a Thing in your life that is not so good?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I save all my “virtuous guilt” for when I’m not working on research but totally could be doing research right now. (If only I worked a little harder, I might be at a better school etc.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      (With my research, it’s probably true that I’m not yet at the optimal amount for maximal productivity, but with my kids, they’re perfect, so there’s not much I should be doing differently.)

      (Re: the research, I don’t actually work more because I actually don’t see much benefit at being at a better school compared to not reading the occasional novel etc. But I still have that guilt. When I get rid of that guilt, I end up working much less, and I get even more guilt. So I’ve come to accept that a little residual guilt keeps me productive enough to not have massive guilt and sadness.)

  15. J Liedl Says:

    I love Heyer – so many enjoyable stories of growth in her books, albeit disguised in airy lightness.

    I suspect some people consider me horribly unnatural but I’m not about to draw out any trauma for my kids with excessive sympathizing or reliving of the event in gory details. I’m also not going to feel guilty for one minute of any day that my kids spent in daycare. (Fact is, they should’ve spent more time in care but during the early years with DH back in school, we could only afford three days a week.) I was a daycare kid myself when my mother went to grad school so I don’t see what the big fuss is about.

    I can feel guilt over many things in my kids’ life, such as not getting them out to as many activities in life or whatever. But teaching them to carry on and deal? Never going to feel that’s a bad thing!

    • Historiann Says:

      Right on. Janice rocks. Life is too short to dwell on regrets, and there is never one perfect, consequence-free choice in life. (We’re lucky if we have choices at all, in fact.)

  16. hush Says:

    @nicoleandmaggie nailed it in the comments to the original post with this:

    “Ps f the patriarchy. Peace out.”

    No group of Father MDs ever collectively worry about this shit, or for that matter, ever seem to even notice what other father doctors are doing. Mainly because the ones I know are male cardiologi$t$ and orthopod$ married to stay at home moms, so they never have to drop of kids, like anywhere, but I digress.

  17. Cloud Says:

    Oh my. That person would probably be horrified by my practice of taking a half day, going to the Mexican food place by the mall and having a couple of margaritas w/lunch, and then spending the afternoon reading in the comfy outdoor chairs.

    I do also sometimes take half days and go to the zoo with my kids. But the half days with margaritas and my Kindle are essential to my sanity and anyone trying to make me feel bad for them can go fly a kite.

  18. Day Care, Mom's Vacation, and the Incredible Lightness of America's Child Rearing Theories | Funny about Money Says:

    […] was over at Grumpy Rumblings this morning, where I came across nicoleandmaggie’s latest Deliberately Controversial Post. They ask if it’s right (or not) to keep on dropping your kids at day care when you’re […]

  19. mn cold Says:

    Throwing my 2 cents in. I had sitters who charged for all 5 days, but it was an aggravation to me. However, if I had vacation I kept the kids with me, unless I had a doctor’s appt.. or something else. I guess my thoughts are that while parents might enjoy a vacation from their children, their children might want a vacation from day care also, so I would not keep my kids in day care for my entire 1 or 2 week vacation. And yes, unfortunately, I would probably be somewhat judgmental, to those who keep their kids in the entire time. I don’t understand not wanting at least some time of your vacation to enjoy your children without the stress of having to run off to work or appts. Nor do I think someone who wants their vacation child free should feel bad because I disagree, I think we as mothers and women and just plain people should be mature enough to understand that we do not have to agree and we can discuss differences calmly and still never agree – and still like each other.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Why does it matter if the kid would like a vacation from daycare (which is, of course, as Historiann notes, debatable)? There are a lot of things that kids might want that parents overrule. It’s not going to scar the kid for life to get overruled on this one. And nobody’s saying you can’t take a day off to go to the zoo with the kid, but there’s nothing wrong if you choose not to do that.

      (Also, as a side note: most daycares do not run 52 weeks per year, 5 days a week, much less 7 days per week. Most kids will be getting some vacation from daycare on top of the weekends. Plenty of time for Disney adventures etc. then.)

      Though again, if you want to have this particular “are mothers allowed to have a break” conversation, it’s at the MIM blog linked to. Go for it. Re-post your response there. This post is about teaching kids that things that aren’t big deals are really not big deals. Because not getting to stay out of daycare when mom (and it’s always mom– dads are allowed to do whatever child-free thing they want in their free time) is not at work is only a big deal if you tell them it is.

  20. What Now? Says:

    Not that this was the point of the post, but I just reread The Foundling a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it so much! It was one of those Heyers that I hadn’t read in years, so I didn’t remember the plot, which made it an entirely different experience than my usual approach of rereading the Heyer books that I know by heart.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      There’s no problem going off topic, so long as there isn’t a post elsewhere we directly link to that is actually on topic! Foundling is quite nice. :)

      Also, I have to admit I was getting a bit sick of mother-shaming for not bending over backward to cater to a child’s every whim (not to mention presuming to know what those every whims were!). If one wants to make those arguments, one should go over to the original MIM post.

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