Dads and boys: toddler sons, and emotional development…

An acquaintance and I were discussing his child’s behaviour, specifically his emotional development, and our viewpoints were very different.

Tom’s view is that, as a father, he should display a degree of disinterestedness in his two year old son’s emotional behaviour (for example, when he falls and cries) in order for his son to learn to “toughen up”. He also sees this as a necessary foil to his wife’s perceived over-reaction to the same scenario.

Interestingly, I’ve had similar conversations with several fathers recently, and all of their children are boys, between two and five years old.

Here’s the general theme: when my son is hurt, he displays an exaggerated response, to which my wife over-reacts. I under-react, to balance it out, and so that my son will learn that his overly emotional behaviour will not get a response from me. If I ignore his emotional behaviour, he will learn to toughen up.

I have two responses to this.

Firstly, when your son falls over, I suggest that both you and his mother should display the same response: wait a moment to see if he’s hurt. If he is hurt, he will hold his breath a second from fright, then begin to genuinely cry. This is when, obviously, you do pick him up and assess what’s hurt, and provide first aid (if needed) and love, cuddles and reassurance. He’s hurt. He needs you to make it better, both practically and emotionally.

If he’s not hurt, give him a little clap – the “golf clap” – and say something like “whoops-a-daisy, up you get, you’re okay!” Your tone (cheerful and calm) and your words reassure him that he is okay: sometimes, with a fright, toddlers aren’t sure! Remember how very much our toddlers take their cues from us. If he falls and you freak out, before seeing if he’s actually hurt, he will think there is a reason for distress because Mummy (or Daddy, or Nanna) seems upset. If your little one is in the habit of throwing on the drama with every stumble, try consistently responding with the golf clap and the cheery reassurance. You’re fine, let’s go and climb on the slide. Distraction works wonders. (Don’t distract with a treat for every stumble. I have a friend whose well meaning mother in law dealt with every whine with a chocolate biscuit. That’s another story…!)

Secondly: We need to be emotionally available to our children, as needed, in an appropriate way. If your consistent response is as outlined above (i.e. a little reassurance when child is not hurt, comfort and aid when child is hurt) then your child will know that help is there if it is needed. That knowledge helps him develop feelings of security and resilience. Resilience and security lead to independence.