It’s OK to Cry Over Spilled Milk

(C) Luw Swift 2007

I was sitting, alone, at a table in the middle of a crowded, local Starbucks today, sipping tea and composing an email. I heard a small commotion behind me, and then quickly heard the pained cry of a child in the middle of a big upset. I turned my head around immediately,  recognizing the wordless call for help that I hear in my home oh-so-often. What I saw was a little boy, around 5 or 6 years old, standing over a paper cup and a puddle of milk.

He was screaming, and seemed to be frantically searching for a familiar face. I quickly scanned the room, and noticed a family that had just passed through the closed doors on the other side of the cafe.

For me, the remarkable part about what happened next actually has less to do with the child in distress than it does with me. I instinctively stepped down from my stool and moved in close to the little boy, kneeling and making eye contact. I knew that his parents would quickly notice that he was not with them. I had no concerns about that. The only thing that mattered was that he was upset, and he needed someone to be with him.

At first he tensed up as I approached, and almost stopped crying. I reached out and gently touched his elbow, saying softly, “You spilled your milk.” The tears welled up in his eyes, and just as I said, “I’m right here,” he began wailing, loud and hard, and the tears streamed down his face. Within moments there was a hand on my shoulder, and his mother was moving in to help him. She thanked me briefly as I stepped away, and compassionately listened to him tell her, through his sobs, about dropping his cup of milk. The kind baristas hastily replaced it, and they were quickly on their way.

As I sat back down, I noticed many eyes upon me.¬† I thought about what had just happened. A child was screaming over the loss of something that could be easily replaced, and his parents were out of sight. It occurred to me that my response was likely quite outside the realm of what people were used to seeing. Even more, I realized how differently I would have reacted before learning and working with the tools that I have learned through Hand in Hand. ¬†Without a doubt, I would have wanted to “fix” what was wrong, to erase the child’s hurt and stop the crying. I think that’s a pretty common response, and certainly an accepted one, in our society.

But I didn’t try to fix it. I simply moved in, and gave him my full attention. I knew he would be OK. I knew that he would probably get another milk, but I also recognized that the deep hurt he was feeling wasn’t just about this spill. I did what made sense to me, what I have learned to do for my own children when they are hurting. And the amazing thing? When I met the eyes of the other patrons, most of them were smiling. The businessman sitting across from me looked at me warmly and said, “That was really great, what you just did!”

On their way out the door, the mother stopped to thank me again for helping her son. She seemed relieved, and very grateful. I felt grateful too. I’m grateful that I have learned these listening tools, that I was able to offer my presence and ability to listen to a little boy that really needed someone in that moment. I am grateful that I no longer feel a frantic urge to “fix” the emotional upsets of those around me. And I am really grateful that I got to see, from a more objective perspective, the appreciation of strangers witnessing these tools in action. It’s hard to notice when I’m in the middle of it with my own kids.

– Jamie R., Oakland, CA

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