Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


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…

5 responses to “Emoticon

  1. rob May 3, 2007 at 10:52 am

    This is hilarious, and I know exactly what you mean (notwithstanding all the meta-arguments we could have about intentionality, singularity, etc.).

    I’ve had similar experiences — though not to the extent where they were discussed as issues, as in your examples. On one occasion I was picking up or dropping off my then 12-month-old (approx.) boy at occasional care and I happened to ask if they’d heard him say “no” a lot. I asked because our boy was constantly saying “no” at home, to the point that he would say it on the many occasions where the correct response would have been “yes”: e.g. “do you want some strawberries [which a boy loves and always wants]?”; “No” [a boy reaches out for strawberries]. “No” was a kind of all-purpose word: a transcendental signifier, as it were.

    So, I asked the staff at occasional care if they’d heard him say it — partly out of interest and partly out of a largely sublimated desire to show off how wonderfully clever out boy is. (He can use around 50 words and is learning more all the time, and he’s only just coming up to 18 months! Did I say “largely sublimated”…?). They said that they hadn’t heard him say “no”. Knowing that he would say it mostly in response to being told “no”, I asked if they ever said “no” to him. I was merely wondering about the extent to which his use of the word was utterly contextual or tied to a trigger of some sort, but the staff member adopted a very serious face and said something like, “only when we’ve tried all the alternatives”.

    What the hell are the alternatives?! Why on earth would you want to try alternatives to “no”? I was completely bemused. I guess now, after the fact, I can think of a few alternatives and some good reasons why you might choose them over simply saying “no” (e.g. distraction being more effective than simple negation). But there’s no doubt in my mind that the staff member understood the question of whether to use the word “no” as an ethical issue, that “no” is inappropriate, bad, and she wanted to reassure me that the staff there were the utmost professionals and would only say “no” as a last resort.

    I find all this utterly hilarious, but also a little disconcerting. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of “innocence” as one of “positivity” (not in the sense used in the post-structuralism thread, though!). I think the “problem” is that words like “angry” and “no” are too negative; they don’t build and maintain a “positive” outlook, etc.; they don’t teach our kids to [sings] “always look on the bright side of life [death]”.

    I think you’re right about it being a kind of Whorfian activism, then. Using words like “angry” and “no” would mean that our children would turn out to be mean-spirited, “glass-half-empty” cynics, whereas we all want our kids to be shiny happy people. And it’s here, of course, that my amusement turns to concern, because if that strategy is in any way effective — and I wouldn’t see it as having no effects whatsoever — then I can’t help but be appalled at the prospect of the next generation acting on the basis of such a bereft form of subjectivity! (assuming that people’s actions harmonise with a given form of subjectivity, which is no small assumption).

    Of course, I know that things are more complicated than that, but it does make me wonder about the way that a certain discourse (one that has its locus in psychology and social welfare) has become normalised and positioned itself within the study of and training in early childhood education (and thereby provided itself with an institutional basis for maintaining its normalised position of dominance). And I can’t help but wonder about the many varying implications of such an arrangement. More specifically, I can’t help but fear for the mind and disposition of my son!

  2. N Pepperell May 3, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    I have exactly the same reaction – I mean, you can kind of see some point lurking beneath all of this: sure, you don’t want staff losing their temper; yeah, you don’t want them saying “no” all the time, etc. It’s just that, like you, I don’t get the impression that this is the issue – it’s instead a sort of ethical principle, based on what I believe is a profound misunderstanding…

    When I consulted for educational programs some years back, there was this ridiculous “self esteem” discourse that I always suspected of having derived from some fundamentally misunderstood psychological studies about the negative consequences that would result from disruptions to the development of a sense of self – a concept that has nothing to do with feel-good “self-esteem” messages, but rather with something more like the ability to differentiate self and other. I can’t help but wonder whether this is some further mutation of that phenomenon…

    I find it disconcerting too – and not just the notion that we’re trying to program legions of little “accentuate the positive” kids, but the sense that this strategy seems precisely counter-productive, given that anger and negativity aren’t exactly dependent on the development of higher thought processes (Pinker has a lovely line somewhere about children being “nasty, brutish, and short” ;-P). The irony of this is that it will actually result in small kids receiving a large amount of specifically negative feedback for perfectly normal emotions and expressions.

    I can predict the results: a generation from now, there’ll be this whole reactive discourse on how “you know, my generation, we were taught that it wasn’t okay to express your negativity – we had to hold all that in, to repress it”… There’ll be encounter groups; folks will gather together to “take back the no”… There’ll be books on The Part of ‘No’ We Didn’t Understand… ;-P

    (Sorry for the silliness – it’s been an extremely long day…)

  3. rob May 4, 2007 at 9:30 am

    Ha! No need to apologise for the silliness, which is very amusing: “The Part of ‘No’ We Didn’t Understand” — that’s a good one!

  4. Ed May 8, 2007 at 3:52 am

    One uni in QLD has done a study that found communicating with children that people actually have different states of mind like angry or happy is actually good for them, as it allows for a differentiation between them and the rest of the world.


    They did research into ‘parenting style’ and those kids whose parents would adopt a style that talked about what other people were thinking or feeling, had more friends, were more social and were bullied less often, plus were more likely to be able to understand the difference between their mind and others much faster.

    Dunno… The seeming ban on emotions worries me…there is so much emotional censorship that people already do…particularly in regard to social research participants; the only “allowable” emotion is “happy” when telling their story a person might have to be sad (because it is a sad story) or someone might be angry (because it is a story about how unjust the world is)…

  5. N Pepperell May 9, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Yeah, I thought of the theory of mind literature, as well. I still find the situation quite bizarre…

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