Teaching Children What to Feel

By Veronica

My oldest daughter, five-year-old JellyBean loves the story of Moses’ birth. Unfortunately, when she is acting out this story, she does not play Miriam or Jochebed or Moses. Instead, she strips down to a shirt tied around her waist, puts a pair of pants on her head for a headdress, and pretends that she is an ancient Egyptian soldier. She runs through the house to wherever her sister is playing with a well-beloved doll, tears the doll from her unsuspecting arms, and runs off with it.

While I am delighted that my daughter, um, has an imagination, I hate this game. Most of all, I hate the smile on my oldest daughter’s face when her sisters cry, a smile that says, “I am bigger than you and I can get away with it.”

I do not ever, ever want my daughter to feel satisfied when she makes her sisters cry.

I have been thinking a lot about my children’s feelings and my response to them. I keep stumbling across blog posts or books or conversations about how parents do or do not handle their children’s feelings. Over at cribchronicles.com, bon wrote an beautiful post about grief and history and her reasons for blogging – an exceptional post even for bon, who is already an exceptional writer in the parenting blogosphere for her ability to convey two things beyond the skill of blatherers: subtlety and stillness.

In “slouching toward bethlehem,” bon wrote about her struggle with feelings about her parents’ divorce when she was a baby, about the loss of her own children, and the joy she feels now with her son and daughter. How do we experience joy and sorrow freely if we were raised with emotions that were scripted for us? She writes:

the disintegration of my family of origin and of my parents as non-embittered entities was presented not as my own loss to grapple with but something in the past, sterile and at safe remove. “my parents divorced when i was an infant but i have a good relationship with my father,” i was instructed to write in my fourth grade autobiography. i do not remember having any idea of how to articulate such a thing publicly in any other way. only nearly twenty years later, holding that photograph in my grandmother’s empty apartment, did it occur to me that i’d been sold a line…that maybe i had a right to feelings and thoughts on the subject, after all.

bon wonders how to authentically live out her own joys and sorrows after trying make her feelings match parental expectations. I have expectations for my children’s feelings. When do my expectations go too far, becoming obstacles to peace and wholeness instead of helping them to it?

Molly at Adventures in Mercy wrote a post recently on Gentle Shepherd Parenting, a philosophy of parenting that advocates a middle way between authoritarian and permissive parenting. One of the hallmarks of this approach is the parent’s reactions to a child’s feelings. Molly writes:

The gentle parent knows that it’s never appropriate to seek to control another person’s feelings…

It’s not appropriate to expect your child to always be in a bubbling joyful mood. Do you want someone to whack you every time you express anything but smiling cheerfulness? But it’s also never appropriate to let a kid get away with the kind of angry outbursts that hurt those around them.

In both Molly’s post and bon’s, there is something profoundly important: the recognition that our children are their own people, separate from us, however well we love them. Children have their own feelings, and those feelings ultimately cannot be dictated by us.

On the other hand (my brain, Shiva-like, always finds the other hand), there is a long tradition that training the young includes teaching children what to feel.  In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote:

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.

Lewis asserts strongly in Abolition that some things are intrinsically worthy of grief or joy or worship, and that it is the task of adults to train children to feel the appropriate emotion in response. In his view, teaching children what to feel is not only advisable, it is the essential task of parenting.

There are times when I feel I have stumbled upon a dreadfully important but unrecognized element of parenting, and this is one. I do not want to issue draconian dicta on what my children may or may not feel. It wouldn’t work anyway, and besides the selfishness of dictatorship in general, there is a sense in which I would be losing my children by doing so. I risk never knowing my child if I have already told her what she is allowed to be.

But I also do want to tell my children what to feel. I teach my children to not only say “I am sorry,” but mean it. I want my daughter to care if she makes her sisters cry. I want her to understand the importance of compassion and kindness and mercy, not just as principles, but to feel them in her heart.

Even if not immediately apparent, woven through all the above quotes is a common thread: the importance of modeling right feelings for our children. I learned more from the contentment my parents showed with our standard of living than I ever learned from lectures. I learned more about grief and love and forgiveness from watching my parents than discipline could ever have taught me. I learned what to value and how to feel by watching them. While I still have many direct lessons to give my daughter, I also know that she will learn most by watching me.

And that makes me uncomfortably certain that my feelings need a much closer look.

When Veronica is feeling up to it, she blogs at Toddled Dredge.

9 Responses to Teaching Children What to Feel
  1. Beck
    January 13, 2009 | 2:40 pm

    One of the big things that I really try to teach my kids is that some emotions are just not appropriate to express – that a lot of the time, it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling, it matters how you act. But it’s also VITALLY important that we teach children the right way to respond and feel about things, too.

  2. Jeni
    January 13, 2009 | 3:15 pm

    In our family, we’ve just started dealing with things like this. I never really thought about it until my daughter turned 2, and now a few months later she really struggles with channeling her frustration & anger in appropriate ways. For example, showing your frustration by shrieking at the top of your lungs & smacking Mommy repeatedly on the leg is not really appropriate. It’s not that her frustration is bad – I get frustrated easily myself – but I need to figure out how to channel MY OWN frustration in the right way, so that I can model it for her.

    Parenting is a hard job!

  3. Sherri Edman
    January 13, 2009 | 3:37 pm

    I once had a professor who made the claim that, Christian or not, if you read and understand Aristotle, that’ll get you 90% of the way to becoming a human being. This is part of what he meant, I think.

    In addition to modeling the right feelings for our kids, I think the principle of habituation comes into play, too. In the modern west particularly, we have fallen for the line that our feelings ought to dictate our actions, when in fact feelings often are formed by following the correct actions. The affections can– and should be!– trained. Can you imagine how many more intact marriages we’d have if people got that love is something you choose to cultivate rather than something you fall helplessly into or out of?

    So we train kids to write thank you notes even before they have learned to be particularly grateful, and in fact the process of articulating the words of gratitude is part of learning to feel it. I make my kids say “I’m sorry,” even when I know they aren’t, because saying it is the first step to internalizing it.

    This is why my husband often claims that he fully supports hypocrisy. 🙂 If you wear the mask long enough, it becomes your real face.

  4. edj
    January 13, 2009 | 5:10 pm

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I love JellyBean. She’s the Egyptian soldier–that is so funny!

  5. Mary-LUE
    January 14, 2009 | 2:48 am

    I think this is a great post. My brain wants to say something insightful here, but the body is being contrary. I can hardly stay awake!

  6. Bon
    January 14, 2009 | 1:06 pm

    Lewis and i might differ on our accounts of what love is appropriate to particular objects but i too am keen to instruct my children’s feelings along the lines i consider ethical. like you, too, i assume they’ll learn a great deal of that indirectly, by watching their father and me…hence the work i’m doing cleaning out some of my own closet of feelings in the post you quoted.

    the key line that needs drawing, i think, in teaching children about feelings is the one that distinguishes their feelings from your own, as the parent (or teacher). sometimes we try too hard to get kids to parrot clean and tidy feelings about things we ourselves are still messy about, thus depriving them of any real emotional engagement with the topic…this is kinda what my parents did in relation to their divorce, and i see it frequently all over our culture. it’s often well-intentioned, because we as parents (or teachers) want to believe kids are happy and well-adjusted. but saying so doesn’t make it so, and emotions do have to be processed – in appropriate ways, sure, but still processed – or they leak out their mess in other areas.

  7. Hannah
    January 14, 2009 | 9:27 pm

    Veronica, I wonder often about the fine line between accepting children’s feelings, ALL of them, and failing to give them some walls to bump up against, to comfort them with the fact that they need not be constantly victim to wild swings of self-centered emotions. Your post was beautifully articulated, and I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion, much as I often wish that whole modeling part weren’t so unavoidable!

  8. pam at beyondjustmom
    January 15, 2009 | 12:19 pm

    Great discussion! I believe the key here is that we cannot instruct our children’s feelings, but we can instruct them on the appropriate response to those feelings. In my view, empathy is everything. Even when they’re being overdramatic, we can say, “I see you’re feeling angry/frustrated/jealous/sad. That’s too bad. What are you going to do with that?” and give them some constructive suggestions.
    When I’m feeling irrationally frustrated, which happens quite often, I do so much better if someone will acknowledge. THEN I can move forward. If not, I tend to escalate. So do my kids.

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