“Are You Okay?” is not a respectful thing to say.
“Why not?,” you ask. After all, it’s what adults say when a kid falls. It feels natural, a way to show concern. It’s also a great example of a “natural instinct” that isn’t actually respectful.
First, the kid is not okay. She fell, it hurts. It was a sudden bad surprise, and it might be disorienting, too. It’s a hard question for adults in similar (if more dire) situations to answer – even to come up with an “I don’t know.”
Second, the kid probably is okay – kids are built to fall and learn from falling.
So “Are you Okay?” is really about you, the adult. The child’s fall may not be okay to you, because if he’s got a problem you have to deal with it, and you don’t know just yet how big a problem it is – so you are in a big hurry to answer the question “do I have to deal with a significant accident?”
But what about the child? He’s too young to talk, and/or mildly shocked, so he simply can’t answer your question. If you’ve played sports, think of yourself after a fall. When people say ‘are you okay?’ they really want you to signal something. Is it fair to ask that of a child – to say “Hey, you just fell – do I have to go to the emergency room or anything?”
Listen to how paramedics and sports trainers are trained to greet someone who’s gone down – they don’t say “Are you Okay?” They listen, observe, and, when they need to start the conversation, they’ll say “what happened?”
Adults often rush fallen (and thus disoriented) children – not giving them the chance to feel, think or express themselves.
Sometime, adults will repeat ‘You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay’ to an upset child – which might be the adults wish, but doesn’t help the child. They also say ‘I’m right here,’ which pretty obvious to a 2 year old, too.
So What Do You Do when Your Kid Falls?
You have an important role, which isn’t that much different that your role in helping a teen who has had a social disaster. First, you be there, and you listen. You see the child as competent, and support them in taking care of themself. They will let you know what they really need. It may be a kiss with magical powers or the embrace of total safety, or the chance to retreat to the sidelines and sit on your lap, if that will help, but your main goal is to be respectful – which means you are in the moment, and supporting the child’s learning.
In general, you use your fact-based play-by-play sportscaster style to stay there, while you work on understanding the situation. Whenever a kid’s working on a problem, there is an empowering degree, and an empowering style, of help – and a fall is a wonderful problem to work on.
Specifically, if your fallen kid asks to be picked up, pick him up, but don’t offer it. Instead, drop down to his eye level, which is near the ground after a fall, and look in his eyes, so he knows you’re there. Then you can talk about what is happening …. not what did happen, right away, but start in the present, so ”You are sitting down now” or “It looks like you had a surprise” or “I see a mark on your knee.”
Then you wait for a response.
He must feel your interest. You take your time and you listen and sometimes the kid needs some special soothing, but often she is curious, and you can join her there, saying “I wonder how you fell down?” or “It looks like your foot hit this root (point).” In time, you want your kid to seek and share her own analysis when she gets a bad surprise.
But what if it is a “real emergency?”
What if there is a “real problem” – a major injury? Rushing over and repeating “are you okay?” won’t improve things. Better to take a deep breath and get there three seconds later with a sense of the location, who else is there, your observations of the child’s body, so you can take command by having someone call 911, finding or giving first aid, etc. In the case where there is a serious injury, you are like a fireman or a paramedic, focusing on medical and logistic problem solving, including treating for shock, before taking on anyone’s psychological needs.
Learning to let your child fall, and being there for them (as necessary) as they take care of themselves, is one of the great habits of parenting.
Click the video below to see a moment in a RIE class at Magda Gerber’s house – it’s a great chance to see what a “RIE environment” looks like, and to hear the great lady’s voice.
In the clip, when asked about RIE babies falling, Magda says:
“Of course, they fall – but they don’t expect an adult to run and rescue them. Learning to fall, getting up again, and moving on –this is the best preparation for life.”
That just about covers it. Falling is awesome!