Kids Have Emotional Labor Too

(By the way: there’s a new post up at the Sabbath blog, on how to handle interruptions to one’s Sabbath.)


emotional-childOf all the learnings from CREDO, the stuff on emotional labor and deep acting has given me the most food for thought. You can read my original post about emotional labor here, but in a nutshell:

Emotional labor is the work involved in responding appropriately to different emotionally fraught situations. Many professions involve heavy doses of emotional labor—ministry is one of them. We might go from leading a staff meeting, to celebrating a job promotion on the phone with a parishioner, to navigating a conflict with a co-worker, to visiting a dying person in the hospital, to teaching a group of 6th graders at the mid-week children’s program. And that’s before we get home and have another set of emotional issues to respond to among our families and friends. Lots of stops and starts. Lots of switching gears.

Everyone has emotional labor, even children. Two things happened recently to highlight the emotional labor of kids:

1. I’ve been reading to the girls Gary Schmidt’s wonderful Newbery-honored book, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. We are nearing the end, so they are asking for it in the various cracks and crevices of our days. Last Saturday morning we got to the climax of the book, which involves a disturbing act of violence. It was a sad, tense moment.

Immediately afterward, we had to get into the car so they could go to their ice skating lesson.

Talk about a stop and start.

2. This morning I drove the girls to the bus stop, which I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays so James and I can leave from there to go to preschool. When we got to the bus stop we realized that Margaret didn’t have her backpack. So I zoomed back to the house, hoping we wouldn’t miss the bus.

On our way back to the bus stop, I gave her this mini-lecture about responsibility and how I would not be able to bail her out should she forget again. (This is not the first time this has happened.) We got her to the bus stop on time.

As a busy parent, I felt good in the moment that I was able to check that little issue off my list: Well, that’s taken care of. But later I realized—it could’ve waited. For one thing, it would have been a more fruitful conversation had we not been zooming up the street in the car. But also: I sent her off to school feeling down on herself for forgetting, and worried and sad that she had disappointed me.

In the first instance, I didn’t have control over the emotionality of the situation. In the second instance, I certainly did.

No real conclusions here. Just an awareness that our kids go through the same kinds of gear-shifting that we do. And as parents, we can make those transitions easier or harder.

(We can also be gentle with ourselves when we miss the mark.)

Parents, or people who work with kids—where you have you seen this kind of dynamic at work?



5 thoughts on “Kids Have Emotional Labor Too

  1. It could have waited – a difficult discipline for me – I tend to want to “lay into” now rather than later time that might be much more appropriate.

  2. susan says:

    I live in fear that Selam will someday be in a therapist’s office talking about such conversations that always, always occur on the way to school. I KNOW better. I don’t DO better. And then both of us feel yucky all day.

  3. We’ve had the exact same backpack situation. As he got out of the car I chided myself for sending him off to school (and emotional obstacle course in itself) w/ the last thing he heard from me being anger and frustration. Parenting is so stinking hard! I forget that he is small and vulnerable inside even though he tall and looking less like a little boy and more like a big kid every day. I have to constantly remind myself that I can’t expect an 8 year old to act/behave like a 10 or 12 or 37 year old. I want him to be responsible but I have to remember that he is still learning how to do that and needs my help w/ figuring it out. Can’t put the cart before the horse.

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