Q: I have a 15-month-old. Whenever he falls down or starts to cry because he wants to be picked up, my husband won't pick him up or comfort him because he says it will make him a "mama's boy." I disagree. As a result, our son prefers being with me (which seems to support my husband's theory!) Is it true that answering my son's cries quickly or comforting him when he falls will make him "soft"?
A: There is no one-size-fits-all approach for most parenting challenges, including the dilemma you’ve written about. Deciding how best to comfort a child who is upset requires that parents openly talk about their thoughts and feelings, and what their goals are for their child. Then they need to come to some agreement that respects where their child is developmentally and also takes into account both partners' perspectives.
At 15 months, your son is still developing the ability to manage his emotions. (In fact, this is a skill that takes many years to develop.) The way he learns to cope with strong feelings—like fear or anger—is by looking to you for help. When he is scared or hurt and you comfort him, he learns how to calm himself down. When he is angry, he learns how to manage his frustration when you show him how, such as by giving him the words for his feelings or showing him how he can stamp his feet when he is mad. Developmentally, he is too young to be left alone to figure these things out. He still needs your help with comforting, soothing, and dealing with strong feelings.
Your husband’s concern that comforting your son will interfere in his learning how to be independent and handle challenges is not uncommon. This belief often comes from the messages people received from their families as they were growing up. And of course, it may also be a result of a person's ideas about gender—that for a boy to be "tough," he shouldn't cry or need help when upset. The truth is that if you don’t offer your son comfort and support when he needs it, he may grow to feel insecure and less trusting of you, which in the end might actually make him less confident and able to handle challenges.
The following approach would respect both your and your husband’s point of view and concerns, and be helpful to your son. The first step is to validate his experience: You are mad that Johnny took your ball. Or, It hurts when you fall down. Next, provide him with the support and comfort he needs to feel safe and secure again. Once he has calmed down, he can focus his energy on the very important step of figuring out how to solve the problem.
Here's how it might look in "real-life." Your son falls down and bumps his knee as he's playing a chasing game with you. He starts to cry. You or your husband say something like, Uh oh! You fell down. (Use a loving, but matter-of-fact voice, not one that is overly concerned or panicky since kids pick up on their parents' cues about how to feel in different situations.) Then you provide some physical comfort, perhaps a hug, or a gentle touch to his knee, and encourage him to play again, letting him know you think he can do it. By combining your approaches, you and your husband can team up in this extreme sport known as parenting.