Issue 97, November/December 1999
By Christine Benevuto
Even before he could speak, our son knew when he was angry. Gabriel knew because my husband and I told him.
"Ooh, that makes you mad," we would groan with enthusiastic empathy. "That really makes you mad." Then we would stand back and watch an amazing transformation take place before our eyes as a fussing, screeching little person grew quiet, thoughtful, interested. As often as not, we parents were responsible for creating his frustration in the first place: As I recall, diaper and clothes changes became particularly irksome interruptions during the baby-to-toddler stage. But if we were the villains of this drama, we were also the ones helping to name and legitimize and ultimately dissipate the chaotic onslaught of feelings unleashed by any thwarting of toddler will.
I have to say right off that, having grown up in a household of hotheads, the idea that someone might need help recognizing or vocalizing displeasure never occurred to me. My husband, on the other hand, had been raised with the idea that any expression of anger was a no-no. Fortunately, the result was not an unusually repressed dad, but one who understands the value of giving vent. He took the lead in offering our son constructive ways to voice strong emotions, and I was quick to jump on the bandwagon.
So we had only ourselves to blame when frustrate became an early word in Gabriel's vocabulary. "Frustrate! Frustrate!" he would cry, shaking his fists or kicking his heels in response to our boorish insistence that magic markers be reserved for paper instead of walls or that he get into (or out of) his car seat.
Now that Gabriel is five and almost frighteningly verbal, his desires are becoming progressively more complex and less susceptible to distraction. Once the swift removal of some tantalizingly fragile object might have resulted in heartfelt but easily forgotten outrage. Today, appeals to eat in a specific restaurant or visit a particular friend right now not only tend to outlive our patience, but also to get recycled every five minutes or so, with ever increasing urgency. When reactions to a consistent, "No" threaten to spiral out of control, an invitation to "get your angries out" can provide a marvelous release of tension.
At such times it's absolutely clear that, with all of the foot-stamping, the snarling, the horrific (and extremely comic) grimaces, Gabriel loves expressing his anger. It feels good, it's fun, and it tends to dissolve with amazing speed into smiles, giggles, and finally, outright laughter. This is especially so if we enter into his furies with him, by clenching fists or baring teeth ourselves, or by our energetic admiration or mock fright at his ferocious displays.
What's great for us, cheerleading from the sidelines as our son dances out his angries like a whirling dervish, is that we don't have to give in to whatever the point was that occasioned the anger in the first place. Nor do we have to bring him around by coercing or cajoling him into liking the fact that he cannot always get his way. Because the simple fact is, even in our youth-obsessed culture, even with parents from the child-centered baby-boomer generation of which we are a part, kids are powerless. And powerlessness is a fertile ground for growing angries.
It's important to say that when I talk about expressing anger I am not talking about violence. Contrary to how it sometimes seems when Gabriel jabs the air with his fist, turns brick red, and shouts, "No!" we are not trying to raise a totalitarian dictator or a pint-sized guerilla fighter. I draw the line at discharging anger through any kind of violence, be it real or imagined: Getting out angries by pointing a finger at one of us and pretending to shoot is not OK.
And needless to say, self-expression does have its limits. Encouraging a child to shake, rattle, and growl amid family members at home or in the car is one thing; the same display at a public event, like a religious service or story time at the library, would be quite another.
Ultimately, the need for discretion may depend upon your child's capacity for melodrama. In our case, we try to reserve some of Gabriel's more theatrical pronouncements for home consumption only. For example, his exclamation, "This is hideous!" when playtime is over, or "If I did that, I'd be ruined! Totally ruined!" in response to a suggestion that he visit the bathroom.
I'll admit that there are moments when I fear we may have created a monster of emotional eloquence. And for all its usefulness, I'd be lying if I said that a harmless angries ventilation is always a smooth path to resolving conflict. It can be hard for a five year old to grapple with the apparent contradiction in hearing that yes, we understand how angry he is and we sympathize with his feelings, but no, he still cannot do what he wants or have the object of that moment's unconquerable craving.
But relishing his own ire seems to be helping our son become more understanding of other kids' bouts of ill temper. And some days being able to identify and name his own feelings is definitely enough to blow the gathering storms of war right out of the sky.
For example, take the other morning at the breakfast table. Gabriel sat steaming over some trivial irritation, darkening our familial prospects with frowns and glares, and emitting the kind of high-pitched whine I imagine a fighter jet homing in on a target might make. All of a sudden, silence and the normal shade of his complexion returned. As if he had just made the most remarkable discovery, he declared, "That makes me really mad!"
Christine Benvenuto has had articles and short stories printed in the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, Poets & Writers, Tikkun, and several other publications. She is completing a novel, which was awarded a grant from the Vogelstein Foundation, and lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Jay Ladin, and son, Gabriel (5).