While I try and teach my son Felix that it is never alright to hurt another person or living thing, even when caught up in the emotional gale of a tantrum, I otherwise do my best to encourage him to express his emotions. I don’t tell him to buck up when he wails about a boo-boo, or if he’s upset about his mom going to work; instead I assure him it’s alright to shed tears when you’re sad. When he’s “mopesy” or “peepsy” or “grumpy” I’m quick to offer a hug or a cuddle. And when he’s angry and wants to stomp and hit I point him in the direction of a pillow.
It’s important, I think, to feel your feelings, even — especially — when they’re negative ones. If you repress that energy, what happens to it? To steal a metaphor from Stephen King’s excellent fairytale The Eyes of the Dragon, the bad things we don’t release get locked in a box and dropped deep into the well of our subconscious. The pollution that leaks from beneath their lids cause bad dreams and neuroses. And when the well fills up with fear, anger, hate, and sadness, graver problems are created for ourselves and others.
An essay on Role/Reboot, “What Adults Can Learn from Children: Feel Your Feelings,” by Sarah MacLaughlin, makes a similar argument. Writing about the response to Jill Greenberg’s photos of toddlers who were given candy only to have their parents take the treat away, MacLaughlin notes how some parents were upset about the impact the emotional trauma Greenberg’s project might have on the tots, while others were upset that these parents were upset. The latter category included adults who found the crying kids funny, as well as adults who responded with “this is the problem with our country” disdain about overly sensitive parents. Like, what is with you parents who are sensitive to your children’s feelings, and express empathy, compassion, or concern toward the child’s tears!? Way to not prepare your child for life in the wicked, cruel, real world. (This reminds me of The New York Time’s writer Frank Bruni’s advice to parents about the importance of fear in the parent/child relationship.)
There is a grain of truth in this reaction. It’s true, life is not always roses. Like Dr. Gail Saltz said at the “Make 1 Simple Change” panel on gun violence I recently attended, parents need to raise children with a certain amount of emotional resilience. Our kids should not expect to always win, and succeed, and have things go their way. That doesn’t happen for anyone.
But this doesn’t mean denying our kid’s honest emotional response to the world around them, ignoring that our children have an inner life, a psychology I have come to believe is more complex than many adults give kids credit for. (And while I can’t speak for Dr. Saltz, I think she would agree.) Telling a kid to “lighten up” or “suck it up” or “be a big boy/girl” in the middle of a crying jag or tantrum is not helpful. (Believe me, I’ve tried. This kind of response only takes my son’s tantrums up a notch. And why wouldn’t it? Telling a kid to grow up is a form of ridiculing that child.) As MacLaughlin puts it, we have to be capable of responding to our children’s emotional reactions even when they seem small or trivial. Otherwise, we’re encouraging them to tamp down or ignore their emotions — something many adults do, to negative effect on their emotional health — and we’re also encouraging them to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves for even having such feelings.
MacLaughlin says this is how adults can learn from children:
“…toddlers are smarter. They know that having their feelings will always help them feel better. These kids not only have coping skills, they are the embodiment of those skills. They are actually coping quite beautifully with their disappointment, rage, and sorrow. They are feeling it. And then, they will easily move on.”
MacLaughlin cites how, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama choked back tears, as if to allow himself to cry, to feel sorrow over a sorrowful tragedy, was inappropriate, or perhaps a weakness. Presidents don’t cry! At least, not male presidents. Remember when Hilary Clinton cried during the 2008 presidential campaign and it actually helped her image? Her shedding a few tears was seen as something women could relate to, it made Clinton seem like less of a shrew, less chilly.
Which is why I think it’s especially important to encourage and nurture the emotional life, and emotional expression, of little boys. Too often, a man displaying affection, grief, disappointment — any emotion other than anger, lust, and pride — is seen as diminishing his masculinity, especially if that man is in a position of power. Strong men are supposed to be cool. Ice cold! Women in power often adopt this behavior as a way of fitting into the male power structure — think stoney faced Martha Stewart on trial for insider trader, looking stoic and unaffected.
There is an acceptable emotional range for adults, and it changes depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. But one thing’s for certain: many people don’t like letting their feelings show, or just sitting with them for a while. (This is even inscribed in how we socialize. When we ask, “How are things?” how often does someone say something other than, “Good, thanks!”)
And so I agree with MacLaughlin. We can learn from our children, both girls and boys, that it is alright to cry when we’re sad, growl when we’re angry, laugh when we’re excited, and smile with joy and happiness. And we should let our kids know it’s ok to do the same. Less inhibition is better for our mental health, no matter our age.