A couple years ago, when August was learning to walk, we were visiting my family in Michigan. August fell and started to cry, so I picked up him and kissed him where it hurt. He continued to cry as he rested in my arms. My mom, who’d been watching, said, “And there goes forever the illusion that kisses can fix owies!” as August laid in my arms.
In that moment her glib statement really bothered me, but I wasn’t able to name why. After months of thinking about it, I finally figured it out.
I think babies and children learn quite early that having mom or dad kiss an injury doesn’t actually cure the injury. But they keep coming back to us when they get hurt. Why?
Because we acknowledge that they’ve been hurt. They get hurt, they come to us, we kiss the boo-boo and give a hug and let the child know that they will be okay, and we accept their pain for a moment. Yes, we often then try to distract them with something else if they continue crying and it isn’t a major injury, so that they will go back to playing, but before we do that we tell them that we see that they are hurt, and our gestures and presence let them know that we are sorry for their pain.
(Fun fact: in Sweden, it is more common to blow on an owie than to kiss it.)
I like to think of this simple acknowledgement and the small set of rituals that accompany it–the kiss, the hug, the assurances–as bearing witness to our children’s pain. The reason that they keep coming back to us when they’re hurt is that we actually do help them feel better because we see and accept their pain.
I think too of how difficult this can be for us as adults to do for each other. So often we feel awkward in the presence of another person’s pain or trauma, so we don’t say anything at all, or we do say a quick “I’m sorry” and then hope the conversation continues in another direction without our having to address what’s happening in this other person’s life. Or we try to solve a problem for someone else, rather than sit quietly and listen, or simply sit quietly with that person. As adults, we seem to have a very difficult time simply bearing witness to each other’s suffering.
I went through an incredibly difficult breakup (for me, but certainly not for him) while in my twenties, living in LA. One Saturday morning I went to my favorite yoga class in Santa Monica with a teacher I’d been going to for years. Over a hundred people packed into a warm, humid room. I probably cried intermittently through the class, but I kept with it to the end. When we were in final resting pose, I broke down into sobs, but I remained on my mat. The teacher, who was talking us through a cool-down and offering words of wisdom–as yoga teachers do–came to stand next to my mat. He kept talking to the class, but he knelt down right beside me as he did. He didn’t touch me; I don’t know if he even looked at me, as my eyes were closed (and filled with tears). He stayed with me through the silence of savasana, and then, when the class was over, he stood up and walked away.
This experience touched me profoundly. In those ten minutes, the teacher stood by my side and bore witness to my pain. He didn’t try to fix it and he didn’t try to cheer me up; rather, his presence simply acknowledged that I was suffering. He saw me as I was in that moment (a sweaty, tearful mess) and accepted me. My situation wasn’t any better–the breakup was still happening and it still hurt like hell–but something inside me felt better for having my suffering seen and acknowledged.
Ten years later, I still carry this memory as a powerful, transformative moment of acceptance.
So I will continue to kiss my children’s boo-boos when they ask for it, even if my kisses don’t contain magic healing properties. I will continue to acknowledge when they are physically or emotionally hurt or simply need me to be there with them, without saying anything, without fixing anything: just being with them.
Do you kiss your kids’ boo-boos? Do you have another way of acknowledging when they’re hurt, or do you prefer to distract them and quickly move them past the incident?
Photos by me.