Why My Son is Crying (Two Year Olds and Empathy)

My two year old cries for the most ridiculous reasons. Or so it might be easy to think.

He wants to climb the ladder that I told him is “dangerous” but won’t climb on the swing set instead even though there’s a slide going down the other side. You know. The swingset that cost a few grand. The swing set that is child-safe. The swing set cushioned by soft grass. The swing set that isn’t rusty and possibly dangerous like this ladder balancing in the middle of the deck as we try to fix it.

He’s not crying because of that silly thing. He’s crying because he lacks the words to tell me WHY it is important to him to climb the ladder. He can’t tell me that his imagination is so full of these vivid wordless thoughts about what it would be like, how tall it is, and how it is yellow instead of green, and how yellow makes him smile.

He’s not crying because he’s being silly. He’s crying because I’m using those intangible words again and saying “no. danger.” and he can’t figure out the words to ask me HOW is it dangerous? Couldn’t I hold his hand and keep him safe? Why am I being so STUBBORN and using those words again instead of helping him do what he wants the way I help him with other things?

He is screaming his head off because he wants to bring a dirty snow shovel inside. I just let him play with it outside for a half hour and he put it down and didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. But NOW he wants to BRING IT INSIDE? And he’s yelling at me because I said no?

He’s not crying because he’s determined to track dirt and snow inside. He’s wondering what it will sound like bumping across the tiles in the kitchen and swishing across the carpet in the library. What it will sound like sliding over the wooden floor. How it’s different from the way it sounds on the gravely driveway or the soft grass, or the crunch of the snow.

And he can’t tell us these things that he wonders because his words number far too few. He can cry with disappointment, and with sadness and upset about the fact that you cannot understand and he cannot make you understand these things he sees so vividly inside of his imagination.

Yes. Sometimes it’s cute how deeply they feel these things and it’s tempting to smile or laugh. Just like it’s tempting to smile or laugh when they put on their shoes backwards and their coat upside down. This tantrum is as much a part of “small human being” as chubby cheeks and teetering first steps.

Yes. Sometimes it feels manipulative. And being manipulated makes us feel ANGRY and FIRM. And WHY CAN’T THIS CHILD UNDERSTAND WHAT I WANT AND WHAT I FEEL?

Of course they can’t. They don’t have the years of experience and knowledge that we do. They’re babies still. How can we expect them to understand what we feel and empathize with us?

We aren’t understanding and empathizing with them. And we have fully developed adult brains capable of doing all of these things and capable of all this logic. Plus. We’ve BEEN THERE. We’ve been children. Our children have never been adults.

The only illogical thing happening here is our expectation that our child understand the incomprehensible words that we are using as an explanation for our “no”. And that we are getting angry at them or laughing at them when they get upset about what they cannot understand.

Oh buddy. I said “NO DANGEROUS! And you got SO upset because you don’t see why it’s dangerous. But.. Look! Look. See? Wobble wobble, the ladder goes side to side. Look. Alexander walks up the ladder. Step one… Wobble wobble.. Step two.. Wobble wobble. OH NO! Alexander wobbles and falls. And falls and falls BOOM! That’s like falling off the couch onto the floor but HIGHER! More ouch. More boom. Oh no. Poor Alexander. That would hurt SO MUCH! Big ouch. But.. Shh.. Alexander says “Mommy can you help me do it safe?” OF COURSE! Let’s see.. I can hold you and you can go up one step! Up two steps! Up three! And jump back down like that. Three steps can be safe if you hold my hand, okay Alexander?

This way he learns to ask “Mommy can you help me do it safe?” instead of sneaking over to do it by  himself when I’m not looking. And he learns to use those words when I say “no dangerous” instead of flipping out. That’s what his tantrum means, so those are the words that I teach him.

Sometimes the answer will be “no”. There are some things that you cannot do safe. You cannot touch boiling water. But a lot of the times when we say “no dangerous” we mean that we can’t be bothered or we just want to wall that thing off completely rather than letting them touch it for fear that they will touch it when they are alone.  

One thought on “Why My Son is Crying (Two Year Olds and Empathy)

  1. I am in love with your writing – thank you for putting so much in perspective for me on a regular basis and allowing me to be just a little more ‘in tune’ with my toddler, in the hopes of a better day for us both.

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