May 7, 2018.
My life has changed immeasurably since welcoming my son, Jack, into the world 4 months ago. It takes twice as long to leave the house as it used to. There always seems to be one tiny sock missing after laundry day and I have become very skilled at eating with one hand while holding a wriggly, busy baby.
Since Jack is not yet mobile, I haven’t had to deal with many bumps and bruises yet. In the few instances I have had to soothe a startled or hurt baby, I instinctively use the “kiss the boo-boo and make it better” mantra. I have a feeling this placebo is known to caregivers worldwide. Of course kissing the boo-boo has no real effect on making said boo-boo feel better. It doesn’t clean the wound or stop the bruise from coloring. Even if the bump doesn’t create any real pain at all, kissing the boo-boo does one very important thing: it acknowledges. By acknowledging that a child feels hurt or scared, we send the message that his/her/their feelings matter. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t ask “how did this happen?” It doesn’t lay blame or guilt. It simply creates empathy at its most basic level.
As we age, the placebo effect of the boo-boo kiss wears away. But our need to be acknowledged does not. With movements like “me too” and “never again,” we are called to acknowledge. We don’t have to experience something to acknowledge that the feelings of those affected are real. We don’t have to work with youth to empathize with them about the real fear they face going to school every day. We aren’t required to judge whether something should or should not have caused such pain, nor are we required to lay blame. And as hard as it may be in the immediacy of the moment, we are also not required to ask “how did this happen?”
Last fall on an overnight to Massadoah, the youth exemplified acknowledgement perfectly. On a hike down the mountain, some of the hikers encountered a swarm of yellow-jackets. At least half of the youth and chaperones were stung as they hurried down the trail. When they returned to the house, those who hadn’t been stung were ready and waiting to do whatever was needed to help. Some got ice, some looked up the best remedies for stings and some simply stood by offering space for the fear and hurt to subside. This last piece is the hardest for us to do. Our instincts tell us to offer words of comfort, hugs, hands or a story of how we might have experienced the same thing in the past and what we did to “get over it.” It is so hard to stand by and do nothing but hold space … for adults. Children and youth seem to do it automatically. Youth may not always have the words to offer comfort, but they help in a much-more powerful way by silently acknowledging the whole person, exactly as they are in that moment.
We can learn so much from children and youth in moments of fear, trauma and hurt. Sadly, recently we have had too many unexpected lessons from them. May we take our cues from these incredible and brave youth, including those in our own congregation, to be reminded that our job as caregivers to each other is to kiss the boo-boo, hold space and whisper, “I’m here.”