When my daughters, Sophia and Isabel, turned six this past May my husband and I started getting a little tougher on them about random acts of crying. Luckily, they didn’t really go through the terrible twos or the tantrum threes but lately, when things didn’t go their way, they were apt to pull out the dramatic school age tears complete with quivering lower lips and woefully large doses of self pity. So, before camp started we pulled out every bad motivational-speaker-coach cliche we could muster in order to buck them up and encourage PERSEVERANCE! DETERMINATION! THICK SKIN! Tears we told them were for when you were actually, physically hurt not just sad because someone else took your seat at the arts and crafts table.
Off they went to their day camp on the big blue bus, trying their best to be “big” girls. And it went okay. There were tears when at first Isabel was mistakenly placed into a lower swim group than her friends and sister. And another meltdown by Sophia when she realized that she missed mommy in the middle of the day. Normal adjusting to camp kind of stuff. As the week went on the tears disappeared. Sophia even came home one day and told me that though she had banged her elbow and saw BLOOD! she didn’t cry, just whined. And her counselor called her a rock star for her bravery. All good.
So when the weekend rolled around my now fearless daughters and I decided to go the movies and see Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Now, going to the movies is not a small thing in our house. Sophia is terrified of movies. Its not that she’s afraid of the dark – she’s not, she is scared of the previews. She hates the surprising unexpectedness of them, the loudness and fast paced editing of them and most of all she is certain that one of them will scare the life out of her because last year the preview for the Transformers movie did just that. So, it was a big deal that Sophia agreed to go to see Kit. (Although it helped that she brought her own American Girl doll along for the show.)
We got through the previews just fine. Sometimes Sophia covered her eyes or ears but all in all the previews were appropriate and in the case of Space Chimps downright funny. Then the lights went down and Kit started with period music and a lightness that instantly put Sophia at ease. Every five minutes I looked over at her. She was engrossed, delighted and seemed less and less anxious with every passing frame. As the film wound down to its heartwarming close I sighed with relief that we had made it through the film with a completely positive experience. Then, suddenly, Sophia grabbed my arm and whimpered, “Help me mommy. I’m crying. Why am I crying? Mommy wipe the tears from my eyes I don’t want to be crying..” I looked over and saw the glistening tears pooling under her glasses and realized that this lovely emotional happy ending was making my daughter cry and she couldn’t figure out why. She had never experienced this kind of empathy for a movie or television character, never been to a movie that was meant to tug on your heart strings in this way. And it freaked her out.
I couldn’t help but laugh a little and actually feel proud of her. I reassured her that it was good crying. That she felt what the characters felt because she cared about them. And, that sometimes tears weren’t signs of sadness but happiness. She didn’t quite buy it. I could see that we had unwittingly created a small world for our daughters where tears were bad or babyish and not an expression of a wide range of feelings. So, I turned it around in that moment of American Girl goodness and warmth and told Sophia that she should be proud of her tears. They showed that she was a girl who felt deeply and had empathy. She had given herself over to a movie in a way that she never had before and I wanted her to go with it, not be afraid by the depth of her response. So I explained that to feel what others feel is one of the most mature and strong things a girl could do. After all, big girls have big hearts and sometimes big tears too.
Original Post to NYC Moms Blog.