The Language of Tears

Photo credit: Kisha Bari

The first language of the human experience is tears. When a baby is born, we hold our breath until we hear the first cry–a proclamation of life as the lungs fill with air and the world floods the senses. These earliest tears signal joy and relief to new parents. And when the baby is placed on the parent’s skin, both baby and adult fall naturally into synchrony; the heart rate of each steadies, tears resolve, and the tension of those first moments melts away. We become parents in this earliest instance of connection and care, as we, ourselves, are soothed by our capacity to comfort.

Over the first year of a child’s life, we learn the nuances of tears. We become adept at distinguishing hungry cries from tired cries and cries of pain from cries of protest. The parental need to respond to and resolve the distress of our children runs deep within our biology. Our most primitive neurologic systems–the same systems that keep our hearts beating and our breath flowing–are activated by our children’s tears. For many months this is the only method of communication we have, and throughout life we fall back into this first language when both joy and sorrow cause our words to fail.

Early childhood teachers become highly fluent in the language of tears. We can identify a child by the particular tone of his or her cry, and we can distinguish instinctively between an array of causes by attending to cadence and pitch. It was with this particular ear that I listened to the full seven and a half minutes of tears that have now made their way across social media, into press briefings, and onto the House floor. I listened, and then I forced myself to listen again, because these tears were not part of the typical range. These were not cries of anger or hunger or sadness or even of fear. These sobs were too quiet, too drawn out, and too low. Slowly, a memory from my earliest days of teaching began to surface, and the sound came into focus. This was bereavement. These cries were bereft–the soft, low, wavering moans of children in mourning. And, in recognizing this particular sound, I also knew, with chilling certainty, what would eventually follow: silence. Crying is an act of hope and connection. It conveys a belief, however strained, that someone will hear and understand. Tears of mourning in young children, however, signal the dangerous onset of surrender, and such surrender defines the most extreme parameters of trauma. This is the reason 540 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, came together to write an open letter objecting to the treatment of immigrant children at our borders. Nothing justifies the perpetration of this collective childhood mourning, a wound that will undoubtedly have lasting repercussions not only for the children and their parents, but also for the world they will inhabit.

Just as the cries of these children ring with a pitch that is both unnatural and unacceptable, so too did the pleading tears of Diamond Reynolds, as she begged her mother to silence her grieving, so she would not “get shooted”–this four-year-old hugged her mother, wiped away her own tears, and whispered, “I could keep you safe.” What follows are the same sounds of mourning that can be heard in the tents of Texas, as her mother tried to assure her that she would not be shot. We’ve also heard the increasingly common sounds of children mourning in the aftermath of school shooting after school shooting, incidents that now number one per week in the U.S. With the same fortitude we heard in the voices of very young children in Texas, who summoned the resolve, even in their grief, to state their country of origin and ask to make phone calls, and in the voice of Diamond Reynolds as she comforted her own mother, teens across the country have moved through their grief and fear to call us to task, begging adults to take responsibility for their right to safety.

I once heard a poet ask a mother with a crying baby not to step out of the theater. “A crying baby is a tuning fork for the world,” he called out to her. With these words, he reminded us all to attend to the language of children’s tears, for it is in our actions on behalf of children that we decide “whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it” (Arendt, 1954). Children from all corners of our country are calling out for us to take responsibility. Let us all be awakened by them.


Alicia Stoller is the Director of JCP’s Early Childhood Center.