My three-year-old son often tells me stories about his day when I pick him up from “school”. There’s a somewhat random relationship between the stories and anything that might actually have happened. Sometimes he’ll tell me something that happened at some point in the past, but not that day. Sometimes he’ll retell a story that was read to him. Sometimes he’ll pass on some flight of fancy. Occasionally, he’ll say something that actually took place.
The other day, the story was: “Anh got very angry at me!”
Me: “She did? Why?”
Him: “I hit her! And she got angry!”
Since the story was repeated several times that night and the following day, I worried that it might have happened, and decided to ask about it the next time we came in. The staff, including the “Anh” from the story, immediately set about reassuring me. The weird thing was that they were reassuring me about something I wasn’t particularly worried about: I was worried that my son might have hit someone; they assumed I was worried that they had gotten “angry” about it. So before I know it, I have three staff members falling over themselves to reassure me that they never got angry at my son (in passing, they did also manage to let me know he hadn’t hit anyone…).
At one point during this reassurance fest, one of the staff members said they knew the story wasn’t true, because the staff never use the word “angry”. This caught my attention. My son’s at an age where he’s become very interested in other people’s states of mind, and he is often either speculating, or asking, how people feel – in books, in photos, in real life. He particularly enjoys picking up new words for unusual affective states – he’s been working on the finer points of terms like “curiosity” and “annoyance”; “angry”, as a less subtle expression, is fairly nailed down as a concept at this point… It would never have occurred to me that children would need to wait until they went to school to pick up a word like “angry” – or, for that matter, that parents would find it problematic if their children did learn this word at school.
The staff explained that they apparently correct the children, if the children happen to use the word “angry”. This struck me as a bit bizarre (perhaps I’m too out of the loop on preschool PC). I asked: “What do you have them say instead?”
“Sad,” one staff member said firmly.
Me: “But… they’re not the same emotion…”
“Cross,” another one volunteered, “they can say they’re cross.”
Me: “Is it better to be ‘cross’ than to be ‘angry’?”
“It’s not as strong,” came the explanation.
Me: “What if they… feel something strong?”
Apparently this circumstance hasn’t been perceived to occur…
The exchange reminded me of something that happened in an online parenting group in which I had participated after the birth of my son. It was a good set of folks – and it was very helpful, with an infant’s unpredictable sleeping hours, to be able to log on at 3 a.m. and inevitably find someone in the world awake and sympathetic… After participating in the group for some months, I happened to say something, in an aside, about what my son would do when he became angry. The response was… interesting. Several people thanked me profusely for raising such a delicate issue, saying they had been wanting to talk about this with other people, but had felt the topic was taboo. Several more people chastised me for not putting the phrase “angry” in scare quotes – the assumption apparently being that the term can be used only metaphorically in relation to small children. I was startled because I simply hadn’t thought the term was problematic – I was actually trying to make a point about something else, not trying open the floodgates on a taboo. I simply hadn’t realised it was controversial to mention that infants get angry…
There is of course a meta point about the appropriateness of any communicative categories for capturing childhood experience – any word we use carries its constellation of socialised associations. But this sort of concern would apply equally to concepts like “happiness” – and I had never seen anyone demanding the scare quotes be hauled out when someone used that term… So I’ll assume we weren’t having a discussion on that meta level… The issue instead seemed to be some presumption that anger was a “bad” emotion – and that infants were too innocent to have “bad” emotions… Ergo, infants can’t be angry… I found the whole chain of associations completely bizarre…
So I’m wondering if something similar is afoot with the prohibition on the use of the term “anger” among the staff at my son’s preschool. Are children too “innocent” to feel anything more intense than “sad”? Or is this some kind of activist Whorfianism: if we don’t give them a word for it, they can’t experience it? I realise this topic is a bit off-centre for the blog, but I’m baffled…