Some marine researchers spend their entire lives listening to recordings of whale grunts and figuring out what they all mean. I do the same thing except I study little kids and crying. In fact, I dislike the sound of crying–especially fake crying– so much that I have devoted myself to trying to make it stop. I have four children–including a two year old– and thus lots of direct experience and test cases to draw from.
We all know that little kids are clever. They cry not simply because they are overcome with pain or emotion, but rather they have learned over time that crying produces positive results. Often kids cry simply because they are tired, want something they shouldn’t have, or just trying to gain attention. But when crying is employed to gain something, then it becomes a habit and increasingly frequent. This is what I call unnecessary crying and I guesstimate that 80 percent of all crying falls into this category (the remaining 20 percent is real crying and a sign of something serious and warrants attention and consoling.) But the nagging 80 percent is the stuff that drives me crazy and can be reduced. Here’s what I have come up with:
- Talk to your children in a normal, calm voice about how Mommy and Daddy don’t like crying. Tell them that crying is what babies do, but big boys and girls don’t need to cry. Don’t tell them this only once and hope it sticks. Tell your kids often and repeatedly so that they get it sooner. And say it not in the heat of the moment, but at some opportune moment when they are feeling good and open to listening.
- Train your ear to detect fake crying–and then try to ignore it altogether. Fake cries are meant to get attention, and the best way to make them go away is to pay them no mind. Fake cries can be fairly easy to sniff out. Lots of kids cry, but if they get distracted for a moment by a familiar commercial on television or suddenly realize a toy they like is nearby, they will stop for a moment– recall why they were crying –and then start up again. I have seen my kids cry, pause and look up to see where Daddy is, and then resume crying.
- Ensure that crying is never rewarded. Children need to know that crying is counterproductive and as soon as the waterworks start, all hope of getting what they want has gone out the window. If they are crying because they can’t have a fistful of candy, never respond with, “If you stop crying you can have ONE piece of candy and that’s it.” That might stop crying in this instance, but teaches them that crying does produce what they want. Changing your approach will be tough in the initial stages as children are likely to cry louder and longer until it dawns on them that zero-tolerance rules for crying are in effect. Don’t wait for them to notice this pattern, tell them explicitly that as soon as the crying starts, all hope is lost.
- Teach them that resorting to crying digs the hole even deeper. If, for example, your kid is playing outside and starts to cry for some unnecessary reason, make them go back in the house until they have stopped. My wife puts our kids in what she calls the “crying office” — which was usually the corner of the room or the bathroom. I put them in a room with a sliding glass door so that they can see what they are missing. In any case, they are told they are free to rejoin the group only after crying has stopped for good. If you leave it up to the child to decide, then the longer he/she cries the longer the punishment. Soon they will figure this out, compose themselves, and stop their own tears so that you don’t have to.
- Don’t forget to offer alternatives. This one is obvious but too often forgotten by Mom or Dad when they are at the end of their rope. A continuous stream of parental “no’s” to a crying child often matched by a continuous stream of tears. So if your kid is crying because you don’t want them to use the scissors, bring out a piece of paper and a crayon and offer to draw something for them. If they are crying because they failed to share a toy with their sibling, follow that up by bringing out a puzzle or some cars. In my experience, about half of all crying bouts can be ended with an offer of an alternative. But frustrated parents — myself included — are often in no mood to come up with anything for their little brat. If I make an effort to come up an alternative that is thrown down, spat on, or otherwise rejected out of hand, then the child is sent to the “crying office” described above.
In the end, teaching kids not to do what comes naturally to them is very difficult, but so worth it. If your oldest child is a habitual crier, then their younger siblings are more likely to play the crying card too. If your child can learn to control their impulse to cry, then the world opens up to them and everything becomes easier for you –taking them to the toy store, taking them out to dinner, booking them on a play date. And best of all, reduced crying provides you with a quieter, more peaceful home to raise your children and get on with the important business of parenting.