We say that our Number 1 job is to keep kids safe in bodies and hearts. We work hard to be sure our classrooms and play yards and families are emotionally safe. But what does safe mean? “Safe” might mean that a child suffers no emotional injury and feels no pain. Or, “safe” might mean that the child suffers no permanent psychosis, or that “I lived through it, so it’s safe enough.” Obviously, neither of these extremes feels right, but think for a minute of why that is. OK, so it’s pretty easy to say why “no permanent psychosis” is too extreme a definition of safe. We know that far less severe emotional damage than that can permanently affect a child, and that emotional injury can impair one’s ability to function in the world and relationships, and to live a satisfying life. There’s not much question that by “emotionally safe”, we all agree we mean much safer than that.
It’s more difficult, but more important, to consider why “no pain” isn’t a good definition, either. The reason is that whatever safe means, we want our children to be safe for their whole lives, not just for today. We want them to have “high EQ”, emotional intelligence, or an ability to experience, respond to, and recover from emotional upset smoothly. As we think about parenting for the long term, we see why a little discomfort and pain is actually safer for our children in the long run.
We know that as they continue through life, loss and pain will be a part of our children’s lives in ways we cannot control. They will lose precious items, they will experience deaths, opportunities will be missed, relationships will end. We can’t prevent these very painful parts of life from touching our children. If our children aren’t able to cope with these emotional injuries, they will be traumatized. The only way to learn to cope with emotional pain is to understand its nature, and to know and be able to use the skills needed to cope well. Achieving this requires a certain necessary amount of practice.
Then our reasons for not protecting our children from all emotional hurt become clear: If we keep our children so safe that they hardly experience emotional pain that we do not immediately fix for them, they miss the chance to learn how to cope with it throughout their lives. When life throws the big stuff at them later (or sometimes sooner), they will not be prepared, and they will be much less safe than they would have been had we let them get hurt a little along the way. By allowing our kids to experience a little emotional pain, we leave them more resilient, ready for a happy life no matter what life throws at them.
So perhaps the best definition of keeping our kids “emotionally safe” is this:
♥We prevent huge, overwhelming emotional hurts whenever we can.
♥We support our kids through all emotional pains, big and small.
♥We allow, and maybe even embrace, smaller emotional hurts as learning opportunities, and we use them to help our children learn strategies for understanding, responding to, and getting past their hurt.
♥Offering support from the adults (plural). Let her know if a situation at school sounds like one in which the children need more help from the adults with limits, guidelines, reminders. Show her that communities like ours pitch in to help their children learn, that it is important to us that the children learn not to be mean, and that setting up guidelines helps to prevent problems.
♥On intervening: There is a huge difference between receiving mild hurts and inflicting mild hurts. When we see children participating in an action that will cause another pain, we must intervene immediately. While we can expect all children to be hurtful from time to time, we as adults should not allow it. This means that, because we expect it, we don’t flip out over it, but we do have a plan and we do respond immediately, by letting them know we see that their action is causing pain, and that we won’t allow it to continue. One of the ways we convey our values to our children is through which behavior we allow and which behavior we do not allow. We can let children know that they can expect and can handle hurt feelings in life; but that we expect that they will not intentionally hurt others. So when you see a child inflict hurt on another, even a small hurt, you do her a disservice if you don’t intervene right away to let her know that she could have done it a better way.