A Dad’s Dilemma: Why is this Kid Crying?

Over the past few years, Kerstin has approached me several times about doing a guest blog for Jelly Bean Journals. I love her like a sister; she and her family are an extension of my own. But I always seem to fall short when it comes to a topic, and it makes me feel as though I’m letting her down. FINALLY, this evening as I was getting my oldest son ready for bed, the topic for this blog struck me like a lightning bolt.

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Let me preface what I’m about to say with a disclaimer: there’s a quote, often attributed to George Orwell, I’ve embraced in my adulthood of servitude to my country and my community, “People sleep peaceably in their beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” I consider myself to be one of those “rough men.” I am a veteran and a “Sheepdog,” a career lawman. I’ve been in rough spots, and I’ve made hard decisions, and that’s made me who I am today, as a man. I’ve also learned this has shaped who I am as a father (more to come on this in a second).

I have two boys, N and B, 5-years-old and 2-years-old, respectively. They are by far my greatest accomplishments in life. I treasure them more than any award, medal, certification or glory I could earn. I love to watch them learn and to see their personalities grow. But, there has always been one thing I have struggled with since the day they were born. I am caught in a dilemma I cannot fully understand: why is my kid crying.

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I am not a crier. I don’t know a lot of people in my line of work that are. Tears and crying are reserved for the hardest of times, when you are truly defeated, saddened and broken. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever cry, I’ve just become really good at saving it for a place and time that makes me comfortable.

On to the story that helps illustrate my dilema. I’m getting N ready for bed. We’re following the same routine we’ve had for the last half-decade. It’s 8:30. TV off. Into the bathroom, use the potty and FLUSH! (You have to remind him to flush.) Wash your hands (with soap!) and dry them. Then the fun-killer. The worst of the worst. The mangler of hopes and dreams. The absolute, most horribly, terrible, SOUL-CRUSHING event of every night at bedtime. Brushing his teeth.

Usually this isn’t that bad of a task and he always gets it done, but he’ll try to weasel his way out of it if you let him. Tonight was a tee-ball night, so I know he’s drained and ready for bed. He tries to tell me he forgot how to put the toothpaste on his toothbrush. I’m not sure if he’s just being lazy, or because he gets frustrated when he squirts the whole tube out on the sink. He gets a correct-sized gob of toothpaste on his brush (good job, dude!) and begins brushing. He stops about 10  seconds in, like he needs to spit and it goes something like this:

Me: “What’s wrong?”

N: *Blank panicked stare*

Me: “Are you going to spit or brush your teeth?”

N: *Spits toothpaste all over the lip of the sink, barely getting any in the sink itself*

Me: “Really?”

Cue the waterworks, drool, boogers, and the full-blown emotional fury of the 5-year-old. I watch him standing there bawling with toothpaste running down his chin and I just can’t grasp why he’s freaking out. I ask him to tell me what’s wrong and to wipe off his chin with a towel, and that just makes it worse.

This happens, what seems like, dozens of times a day in my house between N and B, and I can never understand it. My boys are both very articulate and well-spoken for their age. They are very effective verbal communicators. But they will COMPLETELY lose their minds in a crying fit, making them incapable of forming words from what I see as a no good reason whatsoever.

Another example: B had a bedtime meltdown several days ago because I gave him the wrong color stuffed dragon to cuddle with. I’m telling you, they’re nuts.

I guess part of the reason I don’t understand is because children are such strange, little creatures. Understanding why people do things and act the way they do makes me better at my job. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out kiddos. They’re crazy. There’s a complete and total adherence to patterns and routines, and there’s TOTAL CHAOS at the same time. I also struggle to understand why they get so emotional over the smallest things.

I don’t want my boys to break down and cry, wailing like banshees. I want them to be tough and strong, which they are. I expect big things from my boys and they always make me proud. They are incredibly amazing little people. They are so caring and giving, they are honest and (mostly) make good decisions. I want them to grow up to be strong men who contribute to the world and make it a better place in some way. I want them to stand up for each other and live with integrity and honor.

I’ve struggled for years with my wife, April, on letting the boys “cry it out.” Mostly because I feel they are crying over things I wouldn’t cry about and don’t understand. My child’s brain is gone, my innocence lost, in that sense. I have gotten upset and yelled at them for crying, more times than not, but that never helps. I think the biggest reason I get frustrated is because when the crying starts, the words stop. At the most basic level of verbal communication, they have shut down. Well, I guess if you want to get technical, they’re at the most basic level when they have boogers and tears running down their face, but you get the point. I can’t help make things better if they can’t tell me what’s wrong.

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So tonight, N stormed out of the bathroom after “The Toothpaste Incident” and went straight into bed and hid in his little blankie cave. I came into his room and fed his fish (which should technically be MY fish, since I feed them more than anyone!) and sat down on his bed. I asked him if he knew why I get got upset when he cried. I explained it was because I don’t understand why he cries. He laid there quiet, still hiding, and I told him, like I have dozens of times, that I can’t help him if I can’t understand what’s wrong. Dad’s frustration, verbalized for little minds.

He rolled over and said, “My toothpaste was too spicy.” (NOTE: This is the same tube of toothpaste he’s had for months, it’s mostly empty. He uses it every day.) Me: “Why didn’t you say that?” N: “I don’t know.”  And just like that he was snuggled into his covers and ready for bed. Dilemma averted, at least temporarily until next time.

Please, please tell me, I am not the only dad or parent who has a hard time understanding these little fits of rage. How do you move quickly through them? And, for the love of all things holy, if you can get them to verbalize, share how you do it!

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