“Don’t cry over spilled milk.”
It’s a familiar statement. We were told by our parents, they were told by their parents, and it just keeps going back. While the intention of this statement is debatably a good one, I still struggle with the idea. It’s OK to cry over spilled milk.
Taken literally, let’s explore the statement. A child who recently learned to use a fork and sit at a table in a booster chair, spilled her glass of milk. As parents, we try to stay calm, and we clean up the mess. If we are teaching our children to be independent, we may ask them (even at an early age), to assist in the clean-up process. We do this at our home, and my 3 year old daughter loves to clean anything spilled. In fact, she loves to clean anything. So when we spill something, it is not a big deal, and we clean it up and get a new drink. But let’s stop for a second. My daughter liked that cup of milk. It was something she wanted to drink with dinner, she liked the penguin cup, and suddenly, both of these things possibly fell over, spilled, and parts of the cup may have gone flying on the floor. She cries. I tell her “don’t cry over spilled milk.” Why am I telling her that?
Telling my kids to “not cry,” is shutting down that emotional response center of the brain. What if they want to cry? As a 3 year old, she needs to cry. It’s part of her normal development, and those three-nagers have some strong emotions! As a Mom, I want to be there for her when she cries, even if it’s over a glass of milk that spilled all over my freshly cleaned floors and table (yeah right, haha). Instead, why can’t I respond with: “You seem upset about your milk spilling. I know you were looking forward to drinking that milk, and now it’s on the floor. It’s ok to be sad, honey.” Deal with the emotions, give my daughter a hug, have her help with the clean-up process, and then try again. I will get her another cup of milk.
While this seems like a small thing, it’s actually a big thing. Telling your children not to cry or to not be sad, is essentially telling them they need to be happy or indifferent. We are essentially telling them that it isn’t ok to feel or show sad emotion, and it isn’t ok to have a hard time. This is a big problem. I believe that so many people lack empathy because they were taught to hold in all their emotions. They don’t “need to be sad.” They don’t “need to cry.” Well, I know that sometimes even I need to cry and if someone told me not to, I would look at them like they were crazy. In our home, we seek to show empathy to our children. The things that these tiny humans get upset about may seem like small things to us, but to them, they are huge things. They are emotional things. We want to validate their feelings, rather than dismiss them. Essentially, showing empathy.
So next time your kid spills some milk, try opening up communication. Maybe they are upset about it, not because they are worried about your reaction to the spill, but because they liked that milk! They liked that cup! They don’t want a new one! There are so many reasons they may be upset. Take a second to listen, to understand, and don’t shut down that emotional center of the brain by telling them not to cry. Sometimes we all need to cry over spilled milk, and we need someone to help us clean up the aftermath; and by that, I mean more than the milk spilled onto the floor.