Sunday, February 4, 2024

If You're Angry and You Know It

 I love my granddaughter.

What I mean is, I really love my granddaughter. She's five now, almost grown, but still my Babay Girl. She lived with us for a while when she was little, because my daughter was a young mom herself. In some ways, you could say that I got robbed of the traditional "spoil them and split" experience that most grandparents get, but I'm not sure why that's supposed to be a good thing anyway. When she's with us, or whenever we're on the phone, I try to treat her like another of my own children, the best I can. She has her father, but I can also fill in some gaps and father her without overstepping or crossing boundaries. 

One thing that I love about her is how resilient and honest she is. She's been through some stuff, both seen and experienced some disappointments that have aged her in that way that life does to little kids sometimes. "Wise beyond their years," we say, forgetting that the wisdom we're praising comes with a price. It's cost her some of her childhood to get that wisdom.

For instance, we went on our annual camping trip, just me and the girls without my grandson, because you have to be night potty trained to sleep in a tent with me. It's her second trip, her (one year younger) auntie's first, so she knows more of the routines - the sleeping arrangements, activities, cooking over a fire and whatnot. The first night of the trip, the sun has gone down and everyone is around the campfire, several families with someone leading in happy kids songs, and she gets that look that tells me she's about to drop some knowledge.

"Papa," she says, serious as she can be, "why do they say 'If you're happy and you know it stomp your feet'? You're supposed to stomp your feet when you're mad."

I didn't have an answer for her. She's so right. It's weird. The song is so weird, too. Why am I so happy? And why are there so many different ways to show it? Instead, I responded the same way I always do when she stuns us with some deep thoughts.

"You're so right, Baby Girl," I said, "That's crazy."

She nodded and went back to licking the marshmallow off the sides of her hand. I thought about it for a while longer, looking up into the night sky and getting more serious than I should for the occasion. I Tweeted about it (because saying "I x-ted about it" is stupid) to record the moment and so the family could weigh in. Then I forgot all about it.

That is, I forgot about it until a couple of weeks later when I was listening to the audiobook of She Deserves Better by Sheila Wray Gregoire (great book, by the way). At one point, she referred to the song, noting that the lyrics used to be different. Apparently, the song used to be about all the emotions, all kinds of different feelings and how to show them. That specific line really did used to go "If you're angry and you know it, stomp your feet." And Baby Girl is so right; that makes a lot more sense. I looked up the original lyrics, which are hard to find, believe it or not, and sure enough, they're all there. Apparently, if you're sad and you want to show it, you can cry boo-hoo. If you're scared and you want to show it, you can either shout "oh no" or run away, depending on which lyrics source you trust more. There's even one for if you're sleepy, which encourages kids to take a nap, which is something I've always endorsed myself.

I was so shocked, as if a major part of my own childhood had been a lie, which, I guess, it kind of was. The original song goes back almost a century, probably Russian, and got to English audiences around the 1940's, possibly. But what happened since then? When did we decide that it was inappropriate for kids to be sad or angry or scared? When did we banish all the so-called darker emotions and start telling kids that if they felt any of them and they knew it, they weren't allowed to show it?

Besides her wisdom and perception, another thing I love about my granddaughter is her resilience. With everything she's been through, she's learned not only to express her emotions and ask for things in more constructive ways, but she also helps take care of her little brother, and even leads her (younger) auntie with so much patience. That's an odd sentence, I know, but still impressive. When Baby Girl was three and early four, she used to either throw tantrums or just lock up completely when she got overwhelmed with emotions. Trying to get her to calm down and stop screaming, in some cases, or to open up and say words in others, was a daily trial. And the overwhelming emotion could be a bright one, not just sadness or anger. If she got a toy she really liked for Christmas, she might get so happy about it that she would freeze for a minute. 

Now that she's five, going on six, she's learned much better ways to express herself. She gets angry, and might even scream, but instead of a wild, incoherent scream, it's more of a focused, articulate scream. "Give that back!" is something I can deal with. She has a vocabulary that matches her moods, and she usually feels authorized to use it. Sometimes she might have to whisper it in your ear, or work herself up to it, but she gets it out. She shows it.

The whole discovery about the song is making me rethink the way a lot of us grew up. I'm trying to remember times when the grown-ups in my life really backed me when I was angry or sad or scared, and I have to say, I'm drawing a blank. It's like those emotions were too inconvenient or dark for the people around me, and they'd really rather just see me clapping and stomping and shouting in happiness, even if that wasn't what I was feeling at the time. Even as a parent, I think I can remember times when I might have redirected the some of the kids away from their emotions with distractions or commanded them to hide what they were feeling. I try not to do that anymore, and just get the littles to talk through their feelings, breathe through the moment. One thing anyone with much older and younger kids will probably tell you is that the youngest ones get the best Christmas presents and the best parents.

I can't go back to the older kids and change my parenting style, so maybe they can consider this an apology. But I can commit to doing better by the littles, helping them to identify their emotions and express them. The hard thing, the thing that's really going to take some effort and patience, is doing the same for myself. For those of us who grew up in an era where every verse was "happy," and every movement was only allowed to express that one emotion, it's difficult to be more honest, to allow ourselves to feel the feelings we feel, and to show them to others and risk upsetting them. There's so much unresolved, unprocessed anger and sadness today. Just scrolling through my social media feed, I get endless videos of road rage and public fights. This tells me two things: 1) That the grownups don't know how to manage their emotions any better than the kids, and 2) That I should stop clicking on every fight video in my feed.

So going forward, how about we all try to do better? If you're angry and you know it, stomp your feet, punch a bag, sprint a mile. If you're sad and you know it, cry boo-hoo, write it down, sing the blues. If you're scared and you know it, say "oh no," call a friend, meditate. Take your time, though. Sometimes, the hardest part is knowing it.

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