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.
Radical Mother continues to raise money for Postpartum Progress, and some thoughts on not telling kids to smile for pictures.
I love this, and I agree with you. What's funny is that I always offer to kiss boo boos, and often say something along the lines of "Ouch, that hurt didn't it. Do you want me to kiss it?" but more often than not Jonah says no. I wonder if just the fact that I've acknowledged and offered is enough for him, and he generally moves on immediately following the interaction. I've also thought about how important it is to teach our children to do exactly what you've described, so that they'll have that skill as adults. I hope to raise children who will be able to sit with others through their pain. (That said, Jonah is very uncomfortable when I'm sad, which is fascinating, but perhaps that's only because he needs me to be a rock).
A little bit of compassion goes a long way in life, doesn't it?
Yes, it does.
But why is that often so hard to remember? Or at least, to enact?
Nothing better than kissing or blowing on it...but a bandaid ("needed" or not) helps too.
My kids LOVE bandaids, for any owie at all. However, their definition of "bandaid" is quite broad: they think any sticker at all is a bandaid, so they often run around with sharks or trucks on their arms and legs. =)
Such a beautiful post! You know - I've never thought of it this way but it is SO true!
I took my 200 hour yoga teacher training a few years back and we had to go into bridge pose with a partner sitting beside us watching. We had no idea what the assignment was until a few minutes passed, and then a few more. We weren't allowed to say anything or communicate with one another, but we held the bridge pose for 9 minutes! Holy pain! The purpose of the exercise was for the other person to silently be there for support. My partner told me it reminded her of watching her sister have a baby! It was an unbelievably powerful moment, and each partner was absolutely astounded at the other person's strength. Sometimes just having someone silently acknowledge your pain, or BEING the person who acknowledges someone else's pain can be incredibly healing. <3
MIchelle, that's such a fascinating exercise. It must have been incredibly powerful for both the person doing the bridge and the person witnessing; I think doulas probably feel similarly.
I think we really underestimate the power of watching someone else's pain. I think by now we're at least getting used to the idea of letting other people see our vulnerability and our weaknesses, but we don't know how to be comfortable witnessing someone else.
What a wonderful, insightful teacher you had, to lead you through that exercise and give you the practice of learning to bear witness. Thanks so much for sharing this story.
This is a beautiful post. My children no longer allow me to kiss their boo boo's and this makes my heart sad. They actually dont come to me when they get hurt. My son and daughter turn to one another and this makes me happy that they have made a bond and share so much love and kindness for one another. They are bonded for a lifetime.
I think it's sweet that they go to each other when they get hurt (I can't imagine that my brother and I would have ever turned to each other for support). What do you think makes them so close?
My kids are still so young, and I can't imagine the day when they won't need me for these kinds of things. =( Of course, that's what growing up is all about, and I imagine the more competent we are at raising our kids, the less and less they need us as they get older.