The value of discomfort
Children who learn to handle distress (shots are a good start) grow into resilient adults
Increasingly, parents who don’t want to get their children vaccinated against a broad range of dangerous diseases cite their children’s comfort as a reason to skip the shots. This despite information from the American Academy of Pediatrics that the vaccines are safe, effective and powerful, and that they benefit the public at large.
The “comfort” excuse highlights a larger societal problem: We as parents are so reluctant to have our children experience a moment of distress or inconvenience that we are turning an entire generation into a bunch of hypersensitive, entitled brats who fall to pieces when they get a hangnail.
This would be a good time to remind ourselves that our job as parents is not to protect our children from the world but to teach them how to navigate it successfully. Much as we might not want to face it, life can be pretty scary and upsetting. Bad things happen to all of us, and they will happen to our children. It is our responsibility to give them the tools they will need to cope with those inevitable difficulties. As part of that, it’s not only OK for our kids to experience discomfort and disappointment now and then, it is crucial for their development into sturdy, resilient adults.
Let’s take vaccination as an example. First, we have to put aside our own reluctance to let our children experience pain and remember that sometimes a small hurt or inconvenience can prevent a bigger one. A broken engagement is difficult, but if it heads off a disastrous marriage it’s worth it. Nobody enjoys wearing a bicycle helmet on a hot day, but it’s better than smashing one’s head against the curb. Similarly, the brief jab of the hypodermic needle can prevent serious diseases including measles, diphtheria, rubella and pertussis, to name a few, not just for our children but for the wider community. This isn’t just theoretical: In late 2014 and early 2015, a multistate measles outbreak started with a single unvaccinated child at Disneyland.
Be honest with your children. Tell them they are going to get a shot to help keep them and others from getting sick. If they ask you if it will hurt, tell them it probably will, but only for a short time. (You should even talk to a baby, describing what’s happening. He or she might not understand the words, but the message that “Someone is telling me what to expect” and that parents are telling the truth will start to sink in, which will make it easier for you to have those conversations when your baby becomes a toddler.)
Express confidence that your children will be able to manage the pain. Sometimes when we “protect” them, the unspoken message is: “I don’t think you can handle this.” Let your children know that you’re certain they will get through the brief ouch of the shot just fine.
Do not undermine your pediatrician! It’s OK to tell your child, “You’re going to get the shot now.” It is not helpful to ask, “Is it OK if the doctor gives you the vaccination now?”
Give your children the opportunity to be brave. It may become a point of pride for them to count to five during an injection, or to be pleased that they didn’t cry. Compliment this self-control as they gain it.
Keep things in perspective — it’s just a shot. A colorful bandage or a sticker is an appropriate way to mark the occasion; a trip to the toy store is overkill. (Hugs are always appropriate.)
Set a good example. Take your children along when you get your annual flu shot. Show them that you can say, “Ow, that hurt a bit!” and then go on with your day. Your actions will send the message that shots are important for everyone in the family, including you, and that the needle itself is no big deal.
Vaccinations help keep your children’s bodies healthy. At the same time, coping with a little discomfort can inoculate them against devastating social ills including Mommy-Will-Do-It-for-Me Syndrome, The-Rules-Don’t-Apply-to-Me-Itis and ICan’t-I-Can’t-I-CAN’T Disease.
So buck up. You and your kids will survive their childhood shots just fine. The rest of us are counting on you. “Herd immunity” isn’t a very poetic term, but its meaning is inspiring: We’re all in this together. Do the right thing. Get your children vaccinated, then wipe their tears.
Daniel Molloy braves a flu shot in December given by Laurie Johnson at the Carroll County office of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Westminster.