"I Know" versus "You're Ok"

Think about the following situation. A child stumbles and bumps their head/arm/leg/knee. They start to cry. What phrase do you reach for to say to them in that moment?

Somewhere, I have no idea where, it became fashionable to tell a clearly upset child that “you’re ok”. It seems innocent enough, especially when you consider that through adult eyes, many child “injuries” look fairly innocuous.

Olivia got her finger pinched on a playdate this past weekend and implored me to get a bandaid for something that I couldn’t detect. I resisted, after all I want my kid to be tough and resilient and not demand bandaids for non-injuries suffered in the course of normal playtime.

Our parents, and their parents, were probably less likely to say “you’re ok” and more likely to just ignore a child’s bleating altogether. “You’re ok” or its even more generalized cousin “it’s ok” seem superficially like an empathetic response.

After all, you’re assuring the child that whatever discomfort they are currently experiencing, things aren’t so bad and they will soon feel better. Which is true, but not really empathetic.

I have a bad habit of laughing at Olivia when she throws a fit over something preposterous. It doesn’t help matters at all, in fact it just agitates her more.

It’s important that even if we think we can “see through” a kid’s reasoning that we also put their responses (and our responses) in the context of how we might receive them as adults. Think of a time you were upset- how would you feel if someone were laughing at you for how “ridiculous” you were? Or if someone patted you on the back and said “you’re ok”.

When I’m on my best behavior, I reflexively reach for a different phrase. “I know” conveys that you understand that your child is hurting, however slight it may. In the bandaid situation above, I eventually gave in and retrieved one for Olivia.

Later (as in after the playdate ended) I told Olivia I didn’t think she needed the bandaid. I reiterated that I believed she was hurt (I know) but that I found the demand a tad ridiculous. You know what she did? She ripped the bandaid off and threw it in the trash.

Often, in the moment we think like behaviorists trying to condition a rat. We think that if we deny a child’s pain that we will somehow lessen the reality of it. In reality, all we encourage by doing so is the suppression of their pain. Telling a child “you’re ok” when they’re trying to tell you they are in pain is basically communicating that you don’t want to talk about the fact that they are hurt.

People tell me my children are a bit dramatic, but I for one am pretty proud that they express their pain freely. They know how to ask for help and get comfort from other people. I find they bounce back easily as a result. Stuff happens that hurts, they cry and then a few minutes later they’re having fun again. Isn’t that what we want?