There is the no nonsense let-them-tough-it-out view that says that too much sympathy is not a good idea. Then there is the other view, the kiss-it-better view, which says that a parent should always sympathize with their children to make them feel better.
The right reaction to a child’s distress should probably fall somewhere in between – neither should you mollycoddle your child, nor should the parent appear unfeeling and callous to the child.
Why sympathy is good
Sympathizing with your child makes the child feel loved, protected, comforted. They feel that they can trust their parents to make things better for them and they know that their parents will look after them if anything goes wrong.
Take for instance the example of when a child falls and hurts himself – he is probably feeling some pain, a smidgen of humiliation (particularly if several people viewed the mishap) and so on.
A sympathetic reaction from a parent would be to pick up the child, offer a comforting hug, murmur soothing words to the child and ask if it hurts and if the child wants a bandage put on it.
If there is a visible wound of some sort, the parent can make a bit of fuss with it, and the child will feel gratified and will likely feel much better.
When sympathy can be bad
However the contrary view would be that too much sympathy isn’t that good for children either. There is some substance in the argument that children should be allowed to develop coping and self soothing mechanisms without the parents mollycoddling them and being overprotective.
Take the same example of the child falling down. If he is not really hurt; it may make sense for the parent not to really respond. Very often children cry or react in a self pitying fashion simply to attract attention and earn some sympathy.
So if the child isn’t really hurt, the sympathy may be actually misplaced and could teach the child to expect a similar reaction each time something goes even slightly wrong.
Maintaining a balance
The argument that too much parental sympathy will prevent a child from developing realistic expectations from others is a valid one. If a child takes a tumble in school there is going to be no one there to offer a hug and soothing words and so on, and a child will become miserable if he has been conditioned to expect such a response from an adult each time.
So clearly there is merit in each of the above arguments; and the desirable thing would be to strike a balance between either extreme. While a child should be able to feel that he can count on his parent to be there for him and to make things better when something bad happens to him, this should not prevent him from developing self reliance.
Also the amount of sympathy and the kind of sympathy that a parent offers can and should vary with the given situation and the age of the child as well as the sensibilities of the particular child.